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The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced in October 2008 to assess entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The WCA determines whether a person has a “limited capability for work”, and also whether they are capable of engaging in “work-related activity”. This second part of the assessment determines whether an ESA claimant is placed in the “Support Group” or the “Work-Related Activity Group”.

The WCA is based on the principle that a health condition or disability should not automatically be regarded as a barrier to work, and that for such people work can itself have benefits. It has however been controversial from the outset. 59% of those who have undergone an initial assessment on making a claim for ESA so far have been declared “fit for work”, 40% of such decisions have been appealed against and 38% of appeals have been successful. Results so far from the reassessment of the remaining incapacity benefit claimants which started in October 2010 show 34% being found fit for work.

Welfare rights and disability organisations have voiced concerns about aspects of the test and about the way it has been applied. There is particular concern about how the test takes account of mental health problems and fluctuating conditions, and about the conduct of medical examinations undertaken by Atos Healthcare staff on behalf of the DWP.

Changes have been made to the WCA following internal reviews, and the Government has also accepted recommendations made by Professor Malcolm Harrington’s independent reviews of the WCA. In his third and final report – published in November 2012 – Professor Harrington said that while real progress had been made in improving the WCA the “pace and scope” of improvements had been slower than hoped and it was “imperative that the momentum for change is maintained.”

Organisations working with claimants are still however highlighting problems with the WCA. In a Westminster Hall debate on 4 September 2012, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, said that there was “something fundamentally wrong” with the ESA assessment system and the contract Atos was delivering. She believed the Government had failed to grasp how “disastrous” the system was, and that it was “not something that can be fixed by a few tweaks here and there.” The Government rejected calls for a fundamental review of the WCA, emphasising instead that its approach is to make “continuous improvements to the process to get the right outcomes for claimants.”

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