Many critics, both political and voluntary sector, have long argued that too many ESA claimants go through unnecessary face to face assessments. While the current rules allow for both new claimants and those previously in receipt of Incapacity Benefit to be placed straight into the Support Group following a ‘paper assessment’, I would suggest that this doesn’t happen enough.
However it has recently emerged that, in addition to the Support Group, former Incapacity Benefit claimants (not new claimants) can also be placed straight into the WRAG:
- This written answer from 12 February 2013, which highlights the guidance given to Atos – the WCA Handbook – within which section 2.5 sets out when a Incapacity Benefit claimant should undergo a paper based assessment.
- This answer from 12 February 2013 implies that paper assessments are, in effect, the default option for Incapacity Benefit claimants who are being migrated. This is in stark contrast to the process for new claimants.
While I suspect that Ministers may say that this provision addresses my initial criticisms, I believe reducing the number of face-to-face assessments should be done by placing more profoundly sick and disabled people into the Support Group, rather than putting more borderline cases into the WRAG. This is because being placed in the WRAG now comes with a series of disadvantages, which I detail here.
Parkinsons UK have told me that some of their clients are bring placed in the WRAG despite the fact that Parkinsons is a degenerative condition that will not improve over time – the Work and Pensions Select Committee July 2014 report on ESA recommended that this DWP changes its practice in this regard – and I suspect that the use of paper assessments may lie behind this. Unfortunately, as this answer from 12 February 2013 shows, DWP don’t collect statistics on how many claimants have paper and face to face assessments, so it’s hard to debate the impact of this policy.
However I still believe that the rules for both new and former IB claimants should be aligned so that no one can be placed into the WRAG without claimants having an opportunity to explain the severity of their condition to an assessor. This view was again echoed in the DWP Committee’s ESA report, and in the submission to the fifth independent review of the WCA by a group of charities representing people with progressive conditions.
‘Unlikely to return to work’ in WRAG
Parkinsons UK have highlighted a Freedom of Information request that reveals around 99,000 ESA claimants have been given a prognosis that they are ‘unlikely to return to work in the longer term’ and been placed in either the WRAG and Support Group. Paragraph 126.96.36.199 in the WCA Handbook states that this prognosis can be awarded to people in the WRAG:
Where at assessment you find a substantial degree of functional impairment resulting from a serious medical problem which is chronic or will inevitably deteriorate further, even with optimal treatment.
So potentially thousands of people are being placed in the WRAG – a group designed for people who might be able to work in the long term – despite having prognoses that suggest they are unlikely to do so. I’m now going to liaise with Parkinsons UK on next steps.
Support Group to WRAG or Fit for Work
Parkinsons UK also have examples of people who have been placed in the Support Group, reassessed, and then either found Fit for Work or placed in the WRAG. They stressed that anecdotal evidence suggested this often occurred after paper-based assessments. I asked a parliamentary question on this and received an answer on 15 January 2013. Unfortunately I felt Mark Hoban’s answer was evasive as he only referred to those placed in the WRAG and subsequently reassessed. I thus wrote to him on 7 February 2013 and received a response dated 7 March 2013.
Hoban claimed that, by the letter of the regulations, people in the Support Group aren’t awarded any points in the first place, and thus can’t have less points awarded at subsequent reassessments. Although it feels like he’s trying to hide behind the idiosyncrasies of the regulations, he does then go on to admit that of the 730 Parkinsons claimants who have been assessed since ESA was introduced and then had a reassessment, 210 of which were placed in the Support Group, and of these 20 were reassessed into the WRAG.