Former Atos assessor Dr Greg Wood suggests that the WCA was designed to determine whether a claimant faces significant barriers to work. He also suggests that if a claimant can do a particular activity but not reliably, repeatedly, safely, in a timely manner and painlessly, the assessor should conclude that they can’t do this activity – see here.

However Dr Wood argues that the interpretation of what constitutes a significant barrier has got more stringent in recent years – see here – and that although some claimants should be put in the Support Group straight away, this isn’t happening – see here.

This relates to the framework for scoring that Atos uses in the test – known as the descriptors. The WCA includes both functional and non-functional descriptors, like risk – Dr Wood describes this here – which reflects the fact that it is a combination of a medical and an explanation of a claimant’s average day – again see here for more.

A sizeable portion of ESA claimants have mental health issues and ensuring the WCA takes account of mental health is critical. I thus led a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall on 22 March. In his first report in November 2010, Professor Harrington asked Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society to come up with a new set of descriptors for mental, intellectual and cognitive function. Professor Harrington endorsed their recommendations and submitted them to DWP in April 2011, as set out in his second report in November 2011. The then minister Chris Grayling responded saying that there wasn’t sufficient evidence the current descriptors weren’t working or that the proposed descriptors would work better. Instead he proposed a ‘gold standard review’ to look into this and also similar proposals on fluctuating conditions.

However Grayling admitted on two occasions – 16 April and 24 May 2012 – that nothing had been done on the review. This contradicted a document on the DWP website suggesting it should have started in May 2012. In a Westminster Hall debate on ESA and Parkinsons – one of the group of fluctuating conditions – on 19 June 2012 the Minister suggested some work had started.Then in written answers from 25 June to my colleagues Jessica Morden and Stephen Timms he indicated that the outcome of the review would be published in spring 2013. This was again suggested in a further Westminster Hall debate on ESA on 4 September 2012. The third Harrington Report has put this back again to summer, and this was confirmed in evidence that the new minister, Mark Hoban, gave to the DWP select committee on 21 November. However following a meeting with one of the charities involved in January 2013 it now appears that there will only be a plenary conference in the summer and that the final report won’t come out until September.

Given that Ministers have had the charities’ recommendations since Spring 2011, it’s disappointing that it will take over two years to decide whether or not they should be implemented. The longer this goes on the more people will be incorrectly assessed. Harrington suggests that this is due to staffing issues both at DWP and the charities involved.

The Evidence Based Review – as it became known – was published in December 2013. It argued that there was no evidence the alternative descriptors proposed by the charities would improve the assessment process, and could lead to difficulties when Atos staff choose which descriptors to use, and thus issues of equity across different claimant groups. Ministers did make some vague commitments on the use of semi-structured interviews, improving Healthcare Professional training on fluctuating conditions, and the presentation of decisions. This last point was picked up by Dr Paul Litchfield in chapter three of the fourth independent review of the WCA, where he recommends focusing on whether claimants do or do not qualify for ESA, and less on the specific points score.

Reflecting on the EBR in our July 2014 ESA report, the Work and Pensions Select Committee stated that:

We do not believe that the Review was sufficient in itself to lay to rest concerns about the descriptors. There were factors both in the way the Alternative Assessment was piloted, and in how its outcomes were compared with those of the WCA, which limit its value as a comparative test. To help address the limitations of the descriptors in the short term, we recommend that DWP remind both Atos assessors and its decision-makers that they must take proper account, in coming to a decision, of the claimant’s ability to undertake an activity reliably, repeatedly and safely.