Friday 26 November 2010

Guilty As Charged

It is welcome that the UK Government has accepted that the system for assessing people's ability to work (the "Work Capability Assessment") itself doesn't work. In particular, an independent report states, it doesn't work for people with a mental illness.

The problems are set out in a review by Professor Malcolm Harrington, who was asked by Ministers earlier in the year to look at the assessment and recommend improvements. Employment Minister Chris Grayling pledged this week to accept all the recommendations from the review.

The Harrington Review made substantial recommendations including the need to deal with the complexities of cases involving mental health and similar issues by creating a network of "mental health, intellectual and cognitive champions" in each Atos Medical Examination Centre to spread best practice and build understanding of these conditions. In other words the assessors didn't know what they were doing and they need to bring in people with some clue about what mental illness is.

This doesn't surprise Hafal which has encountered a surreal world of total misunderstanding when trying to resolve blatant cases of injustice: some of our experience is so absurd that it would raise a laugh were it not for the fact that getting these matters wrong risks condemning very vulnerable people to months of anxiety, impoverishing them through withdrawal of benefits, and (tough to say but true I am afraid) threatening their lives because many people with a serious mental illness are vulnerable to suicide.

Chris Grayling said:

"It’s in everyone’s interest that we get the WCA right and Professor Harrington’s recommendations will make the assessment fairer and more effective.

"The WCA should be seen as a positive first step towards returning to work. Those who are found fit for work will get the help and support they need to get a job. Those found too sick or disabled to work won’t be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need to lead fulfilling lives."

Well, Harrington has brought in a guilty verdict on the operation of the system to date so we will have to see if it can improve itself and do what the Minister promises.

The WCA is already being used to assess new claims for sickness benefits and from early next year will be used to assess all those on incapacity benefits, to see whether they are fit for work, need tailored help to get work ready, or require unconditional support.

Chris Grayling has asked Professor Harrington to continue in his role as Independent Reviewer. Professor Harrington said:

"I have found that the WCA is not working as well as it should. However, this is not about ripping up the current system and starting all over again. So I am proposing a substantial series of recommendations to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the WCA."

I have my doubts.

Meanwhile Hafal's advice to anybody with a serious mental illness who is concerned about their benefits position (or is being assessed) is:


Best approach is to get help both from a benefits specialist like CAB and from an agency like Hafal which understands your illness - and you will need to involve your doctor.

Don't leave it to chance.