What has been achieved by 4.8 million Work Capability Assessments?

By Bernadette Meaden
February 8, 2015

Nick Dilworth is a welfare rights adviser who has seen the full impact of welfare reform on the lives of his clients. He is also skilled at analysing statistics issued by the Department for Work and Pensions, and believes that one number, which lies buried in the data tables, should be revealed and widely publicised.

The number is 4.8 million. This is the number of Work Capability Assessments that have been carried out on sick and disabled people since the test was introduced in 2008. Nick has arrived at this figure by looking at the official data tables for the period up to March 2014, the most recent we have available. By combining the numbers of initial assessments and reassessments, he has arrived at a precise total of 4,799,800 as of March 2014. Nick says, in what must be an understatement, "We can safely say that by February 2015 the number of assessments will be well over 4.8 million."

It’s important to remember that these assessments are not a ‘medical’, as the public may believe. They are officially described as a ‘functional assessment’: they assess people as if they are machines, to see which bits are working and which bits aren’t. They disregard many medical symptoms such as pain and exhaustion, which is why people who are obviously seriously ill can be assessed as ‘fit to work’, why so many people appeal their decision, and why the government’s own expert adviser, Professor Malcolm Harrington, once described the WCA as ‘mechanistic and inhumane’.

Not all the people who have been through a WCA will have been given a face-to-face assessment. Some will have received a decision based on their completion of the lengthy and complex ESA50 form, and supplementary information they have supplied. But for all who have been assessed, whether face to face or via bureaucracy, it will have been an added stress at a time when they may be coming to terms with a life-limiting diagnosis, or going through unpleasant treatment.

To have your doctor say you are unfit to work, but to have the decision as to whether you will receive support in the hands of a medically unqualified DWP Decision Maker is not conducive to anyone’s health.

Surely the only way the entire WCA machine could be justified would be if it found that in the past, many people were wrongly claiming to be unfit to work? If this was the case, if it had performed this function, then after 4.8 million assessments we’d expect to see a significant reduction in the numbers receiving these benefits.

However, in reality, the numbers receiving Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance have barely changed,, and in fact have reduced at a slower rate than they did in the years prior to the WCA being introduced.

So, 4.8 million stress-inducing assessments, and they appear to have achieved nothing. Shouldn’t we call time on the WCA?

Nick Dilworth is part of New Approach, a group which calls for the abolition of the WCA and a new approach to Social Security for sick and disabled people. He regularly blogs on DWP statistics and other issues on the ilegal site and can be found on Twitter as @Mylegalforum.

* More on the WCA from Ekklesia, which has co-published two detailed assessments of its operation: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/WCA

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.