moneyThe Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) should be allowed to continue because it has been modified as much as it can, and there is no replacement for it in the offing, an official review has concluded.

This will come as a disappointment to learning disability charity Mencap and autism charity the National Autistic Society (NAS), which have both called for the WCA to be scrapped.

The fifth annual independent review of the WCA, conducted by Dr Paul Litchfield, also noted that while there have been some undoubted improvements, there remains an overwhelming negative perception of the WCA’s effectiveness among people undergoing an assessment and individuals or organisations providing support to them.

This review also included a greater focus on the WCA’s impact on people with learning disabilities. Litchfield noted that a great deal of feedback was received concerning the barriers that individuals with a learning disability face with the WCA process. This included difficulties with DWP standard communications, which are written in a way that many find impossible to comprehend without support. Litchfield added that the introduction of Easy Read communications would go some way to overcoming these difficulties. 

The face-to-face assessment is also a particular challenge for many people with a learning disability given the common propensity to interpret questions literally, give responses that they think will please and overstate their capability.

The WCA has been controversial since it was introduced in 2008, and has been the subject of 5 annual reviews that have helped to reform the test. However, critics have consistently said that the changes do not go far enough to address the concerns with it, particularly around hidden conditions such as autism, and it is said that the test does not take this into account.

Scrap the WCA call

Dan Scorer, head of policy and public affairs officer at Mencap, was heavily critical of the WCA. “We are not surprised that this fifth and final review of the WCA has found many flaws in the process,” he said. “The assessment should empower people with a learning disability to move towards employment with the right support, or provide help for those who are unable to work. However, due to its flaws, it continues to undermine thousands of lives, both through delays of months - and sometimes even years – and poor quality assessments, leading to incorrect decisions, appeals, and delays in benefit payment.

“The WCA must urgently be replaced with a fit-for-work test, which is itself fit-for-purpose. We support the Work and Pensions Committee’s call in June this year for a ‘fundamental redesign’ of the WCA, and we urge the Department for Work and Pensions to create an assessment that will better identify and understand the barriers that disabled people face. We want assessments to be fair and ensure that people with a learning disability get the support they need – this is far from reality at the moment.” 

“With no further reviews planned, it will be incredibly difficult to measure the impact of further changes to the system, or of having a new WCA provider (Maximus). A failure to commit to future reviews means the government will have little insight into the future impact of changes on very people who the system is supposed to support.”

Sarah Lambert, head of policy at the NAS, agreed: “It’s simply not an option to continue with a flawed system which fails to adequately take into account the needs of people with ‘hidden’ conditions like autism,” she said. 

“Recognition of the need for assessors to have better training to adapt the interview process for people with autism is a positive step but does not go far enough. Fundamental reform is required.

“In the absence of an immediate redesign and given that this is the final statutory review of the system, the Government must set out how it plans to continue to monitor and review the WCA. Failing to announce an independent monitor, involving disabled people and their carers, would fuel concerns about the future accountability of the WCA process.”

Nevertheless, it appears the WCA is here to stay. “It appears to me that we have taken the WCA about as far as it can sensibly go in terms of modification and adjustment,” Litchfield wrote in the foreword to the report. “Work and the workforce are going through a period of unprecedented change and it must be questionable whether an assessment designed in the early part of this century will best meet society’s needs in its third decade. If any new assessment is designed, the fundamental question of whether health related capability for work is the criterion that society wishes to use to determine benefit levels should first be considered. If that remains the remit then sufficient time must be allowed and suitable expertise must be deployed to create and test a tool which is both robust and meets the requirement for perceived fairness. 

“In the meantime, my counsel would be to let the current WCA have a period of stability – it is by no means perfect but there is no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf.”