The National Autistic Society has added its voice to concerns over the work capability assessment (WCA) after two television programmes highlighted failings within the system.
The WCA is a process that applicants need to go through when applying for employment and support allowance – an out of work benefit for people with a disability – that determines their fitness for work.
Current affairs shows Panorama, on BBC2, and Dispatches, on Channel 4, both featured the WCA, including highlighting the number of people who fail their initial assessment for the benefit, but then win their appeal. The programmes also suggested that the clinicians employed by Atos, a private company that is contracted by the government to carry out WCA assessments, are monitored to ensure they do not find excessive numbers of claimants eligible for the benefit.
On Dispatches, a GP went undercover at Atos and, while training, was told more than once that the new ESA process is “meant to take people off benefit”.
The NAS has been raising concerns about how the assessment process works for people with autism since the WCA was first introduced in 2008. Indeed, the NAS says it consistently hears from people with autism and their families that the assessors do not appear to have sufficient understanding of the condition and that as a result people with autism are being let down by the system.
Sarah Lambert, head of policy at the NAS, said: "If what has been uncovered by [the] programmes is happening across the country, then we are in an extremely troubling situation.
“An incorrect assessment can have a devastating impact on someone with autism causing untold stress. If people's needs are not properly identified, they will not be able to access the help they need to find a job.
“With only 15% of adults with autism in full-time, paid employment, and one third without a job or benefits, many are being failed by a system put in place to protect them.
“People with autism and their families would be horrified by the idea that their access to benefits they should be entitled to is determined by an arbitrary limit, which would be both grossly negligent, and counter-productive.
“Getting it wrong for people with autism can lead to them developing mental health problems that prove far more costly to the public purse in the long-term.
“The Government’s 'tough love' system urgently needs reviewing. They should build bridges to work, not barriers.”