After much speculation, on 27 March the Government announced the early exit of Atos Healthcare from the contract under which it carries out Work Capability Assessments for people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  In July 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that it had identified a “contractually unacceptable” reduction in the quality of written reports produced by Atos, and had instructed it to immediately enact a quality improvement plan.  It also proposed to bring in other contractors to undertake WCAs, alongside Atos.  Last week’s announcement followed months of negotiations between the DWP and Atos, which was itself seeking to withdraw from the contract before it was due to expire in August 2015.

The Government has set itself an ambitious timetable to find a replacement for Atos.  It hopes to award the contract later this year, and for the new provider to take over responsibility for WCAs by 2015.  Until then, Atos will continue to undertake assessments, under closer scrutiny by DWP.  In the longer term the Government wants to bring in multiple providers to increase competition, addressing a concern highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee last year.

Whether the appointment of a new contractor or contractors will do much in itself to solve the problems which have beset the WCA since its introduction is a moot point.  Face to face assessments are only one element – albeit an important one – in the wider ESA decision making process.  Of the 81 recommendations made so far by the Independent Reviewers of the Work Capability Assessment – Professor Malcolm Harrington and his successor, Dr Paul Litchfield – only 13 have directly concerned the conduct or quality of assessments, or the training/skills of assessors.  Other recommendations have focused on DWP processes and communications, the role of the DWP “Decision Maker”, mechanisms for reconsideration and appeal, and the WCA criteria themselves.

Since the Work Capability Assessment was first introduced there have been a number of changes to the assessment criteria, to the way the assessment is applied and to decision making and appeals processes, both as a result of internal DWP reviews and the recommendations of the Internal Reviewers accepted by the Government.  Other measures are being implemented or considered by the Department.  It may be some time therefore before the full impact of reforms can be gauged.  Submissions from welfare rights organisations to the Work and Pensions Committee’s recently announced inquiry into ESA and Work Capability Assessments may give an indication of whether the various reforms are having an impact, and if so whether positive or negative.

Some believe that the Work Capability Assessment is fundamentally flawed, that incremental change cannot solve the problems associated with it, and that a completely new test is needed.  Neither of the Independent Reviewers has suggested that the WCA should be scrapped however.  In 2012, while acknowledging that people had been let down by the system, Professor Harrington challenged those campaigning for the WCA to be scrapped entirely to come up with a workable alternative.  In his first Independent Review, Dr Litchfield noted that while there were different ways of determining eligibility for benefits, the WCA had the advantage of being relatively simple and appeared a “reasonable pragmatic tool for sorting people making a claim into the various categories.”

The Government issued its response to Dr Litchfield’s first report on 27 March.  In his foreword to the report, the Minister for Disabled People, Mike Penning, said that he wanted “an open, honest and frank dialogue about the WCA: the good and the bad.”  However, in seeking to reform the WCA the Government’s strategy was one of “continuous improvement rather than radical overhaul.”  It was important, the Minister said, to “work within the current operational and financial boundaries to have an assessment which is objective, consistent and fair”, adding that “continued sniping does no-one any good.”

Steven Kennedy