At our Conference in September, the Liberal Democrats unanimously supported a motion calling for changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which accompanies it.
Speaker after speaker stood up to condemn the system left by Labour which subjected sick and disabled people to an ineffective, demeaning assessment process that was not fit for purpose. Many will remember the powerful speech by Shana Pezaro who condemned the WCA process as ‘utterly failing many people’.
The motion welcomed the first annual review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington, and the progress the Coalition Government has already made by adopting his proposals. Thanks to these changes, more power is now given to DWP decision-makers, who are encouraged to look at other evidence on a claim, such as notes from a consultant, rather than simply rubber stamping the tick-box assessment performed by Atos Healthcare.
Today sees the announcement of the second review by Professor Harrington. It looks at progress made by the Government in implementing the changes recommended last year, and examines how the WCA can be further improved so that the decision is right first time, particularly for those with hidden or fluctuating conditions, just as we called for at Conference.
I’m glad that Professor Harrington is pleased by the progress that has been made since his first review. He states that the WCA has ‘noticeably changed for the better’, and that the work done by DWP to give more power to decision-makers has had ‘undoubted effectiveness’ on the process and the decision-makers themselves. It is clear that we are starting to see improvements to the WCA now Lib Dems are in Government.
But as well as assessing progress, Professor Harrington also looks at ways to improve the WCA for the future. I’m really pleased that he has recommended developing new, evidence-based descriptors on the impact of generalised pain and fatigue. Fatigue is one of the most debilitating aspects of many conditions so it is absolutely right we should be looking to assess its impact properly. He also suggests developing evidence to change those parts of the assessment that focus on mental and cognitive disabilities. I’m glad that the DWP has accepted in principle these recommendations and is already working with charities on putting together this evidence. This needs to be done quickly so we can soon see further improvements to the WCA process.
One of the most important suggestions by Professor Harrington is that changes be made to ensure that people who are receiving oral chemotherapy for cancer be treated the same as those undergoing other types of chemotherapy. At the moment those on oral treatment are far less likely to be put in the Support Group of ESA, despite often having similar reactions to treatment as those on intravenous treatment. The Government is now going to consult on this proposed change, and if it then goes ahead many more people who are fighting cancer will be eligible for much needed extra support. As we said in our Conference motion, it is the duty of a compassionate society to support those who need it, and fair treatment for all cancer patients would do exactly that.
Finally, Harrington calls for assessors to be less bound by tick boxes, and instead make much more use of “free text” boxes, where they can give individual, specific information about the claimant. One of the major criticisms we made of the WCA at Conference was that the day-to-day impact of a disability or illness can’t be summed up by ticking a box on a form. By encouraging assessors to write more individual notes, the process should become more humane, more individual and most importantly more accurate.
These changes, and the plans for Professor Harrington’s third assessment, are a clear sign that the Coalition is working hard to make the WCA fit for purpose, just as we called for in our motion in September. Fully implementing the recommendations will, of course, take time. Sadly nothing in Government happens overnight! But I and all Lib Dem MPs and Peers remain committed to making sure that Professor Harrington’s work makes a difference, so that in future we see better assessments and better outcomes for all sick and disabled people.
Jenny Willott is the MP for Cardiff Central and the Co-Chair of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party Committee on Work and Pensions.