Criticism of the work capability assessment (WCA) for employment and support allowance (ESA) has been regularly made in the past few years, and the latest statistics, if they are correct, will only add to this. Has the time come for the Government to reassess it? 

Over the weekend, a report in the Daily Express revealed that for the quarter to September 2012, 42% of appeals against WCA decisions were upheld.

This is a shockingly high number and, basically, indicates that the decisions made by officials from Atos, the company contracted by the Government to carry these out, were wrong in getting on for half of all appealed cases. Given how many appeals are made – 168,000 in the year to March 2012 – this is affecting a huge number of people. And, those are just the ones who appeal – how many people don’t appeal because, for example, they can’t face the stress of the process?

It should also be noted that the percentage of successful appeals is increasing. In the year to March 2011, 37% of appeals were upheld, and in the following year 39% were. This is despite reforms made to the WCA following the earlier reviews by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

The costs of appeals against the decisions are £50 million a year, the Express report added.

On Sunday night, and for those living in London, Clive Bull a presenter on radio station LBC 97.3, ran a phone-in on this issue. I appeared as a guest, talking about its impact on people with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

In the show, a raft of callers phoned in to describe their experiences of the WCA. Many callers spoke of their negative experiences of the process, such as the way it didn’t take account of their/their relative’s disability or mental health condition, and the stress it caused them – even before they took the test.

This anecdotal evidence chimes with many other stories I’ve heard about personally and seen reported elsewhere in the media. It also reinforces the Commons Public Accounts Committee’s recent criticism of the WCA and the number of wrong decisions made, saying that the standardised ‘tick-box’ approach fails to adequately account for rare, variable or mental health conditions and this can lead to greater inaccuracies in decision-making for these particular claimant groups.

So, to repeat my call from a couple of weeks ago, the Government has to look at overhauling the WCA because of the harm it is doing to thousands of people. The fact that, consistently, about 40% of decisions are overturned at appeal indicates, to me, that there is something seriously wrong with the system.

While a test for eligibility for ESA is necessary, it has to be ensured that it takes account of fluctuating conditions. That may mean increased expenditure in the short term,, but with the cost to the taxpayer of getting decisions wrong – and, more importantly, the people affected by wrong decisions – it could well prove to be a saving in the longer-term.

The podcast of Clive Bull’s show is available here (subscription required)