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Controversial work test ‘is too strict’, say doctors

Health professionals who are using a controversial new test to assess disabled people for out-of-work disability benefits believe the threshold for claiming the payments has been raised too high, according to new government-funded research.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals said the threshold for claiming benefits through the work capability assessment (WCA) had “risen significantly” compared with the previous test, the personal capability assessment (PCA).

The WCA was introduced in 2008 to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit (IB).

But healthcare staff who work for the private company Atos Healthcare and had previously assessed people for IB “recognised that the WCA was intentionally stricter than the [PCA] and that the threshold for benefit eligibility has risen significantly”.

Some believed the WCA had gone “too far the other way”, according to the report, which was carried out by the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

One healthcare professional said the “pendulum” had “swung a bit too far in the opposite direction” and there was now a group of disabled people who would have qualified for IB but not for ESA, even though they were “not particularly Fit for Work”.

Other Atos staff mentioned cases “where they felt that the claimant was not in a position to work and would have benefited from a period on ESA” but did not score highly enough to reach the WCA threshold.

Some of the healthcare professionals also said that people with fluctuating conditions, such as mild to moderate depression and MS, as well as those recovering from cancer, found it difficult to “score above the threshold”.

The report’s publication comes less than a month after an independent review by Professor Malcolm Harrington concluded that the government must improve “every stage” of the WCA to make it “fairer and more effective”.

The IES researchers interviewed 48 ESA claimants, mostly those who had been found eligible for ESA and capable of some work-related activity, as well as 39 staff from Jobcentre Plus, Atos and providers of employment support through the Pathways to Work programme.

Many ESA claimants told the researchers that they were not happy with how their WCA was carried out, with some claiming they were not listened to or believed.

Others said the assessment “felt very rushed” and that the questions they had been asked by the Atos healthcare professional “were not sensitive enough to mental health conditions and other fluctuating or chronic conditions”.

A DWP spokeswoman said the government would take the report’s findings into account as it worked to improve the WCA.

She said: “It’s in everyone’s interest that we get the WCA right which is why we accepted all the recommendations made by Professor Harrington’s independent review and have committed to keeping the WCA under review for the next five years to ensure the assessment is fair and effective.”

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