Sue and Kaliya have kindly agreed to host this blog on their sites, as I was keen to communicate with as wide an audience as possible about the work Mind is currently involved in around the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). I’m sorry about the length of the blog, but there’s lots of background to cover!
18 months ago, Mind, working with Mencap and the National Autistic Society, submitted a report to Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the WCA, about changes we wanted to see to the criteria used in the WCA. Harrington had asked us to produce this report after recognising that the assessment was not working well enough for people these organisations represent.
Translating our concerns with the system into specific proposals was not an easy task. Based on what we had been told by the people we represent, we identified two key aspects of the ‘descriptors’, used to score applicants, that we believed needed changing:
· We didn’t feel the descriptors really took account of the fluctuation and variability inherent to many of these conditions and we wanted to make sure that our descriptors could collect this information.
· We wanted assessors to be able to ask applicants directly about the areas covered in the assessment rather than trying to select the appropriate descriptor based on tangential questions.
We made an attempt to address these issues in the proposals we produced, looking at models of fluctuation used in the equivalent Australian assessment. But we recognised that our descriptors were not perfect and didn’t address some of the fundamental issues with the WCA, such as what ‘work’ and ‘fitness for work’ actually mean.
After refining our proposals through consultation with other groups and collaboration with a ‘scrutiny panel’ of health experts convened by Harrington, they were submitted to the DWP. The Department responded that the proposals were too radical and not backed up with sufficient evidence.
Meanwhile, at Harrington’s request, another group of charities (MS Society, National AIDS Trust, Parkinsons UK, Forward ME, Arthritis Care, and Crohn’s and Colitis UK) were submitting proposals for how the descriptors could better address the type of fluctuating conditions they focus on. This report built on our descriptor proposals and made more general recommendations for improving the assessment.
They received a similar response to us from the DWP and the whole endeavour might have been dead in the water at that point, were it not for Harrington arguing that the DWP should carry out some testing on the proposals. This suggestion was accepted in principle but in the ensuing months there was no real activity.
Then, about six weeks ago, the charities involved were invited to the DWP to discuss how the testing would proceed. We were told there was Ministerial commitment to the project, resources allocated to make it happen, and a tight timetable to work to.
This turn of events provoked mixed feelings: it would be the first time that the current descriptors had been properly tested, with the outcomes they suggest compared to the view of an expert panel on whether the applicant was actually fit for work. It would also be a good opportunity to test out some of our ideas for improving the descriptors. But we were wary of the project being driven by the DWP, with Mind’s name attached to it, and the possibility that we wouldn’t be comfortable with how the testing was designed or carried out.
Overall though, we felt it was too good an opportunity to turn down and since then we have been involved in intense and long meetings with the DWP and the other charities involved to try and finalise a common set of proposals that can be tested.
Mind knows this is fairly unique opportunity and we are acutely aware that the circumstances aren’t ideal: our proposals were suggested reforms to problems with the current assessment, not a perfect alternative; we are not experts in producing assessments; we are not in control of the design and timeline of the project; and there are many people not round the table who could make important contributions. However, it is clear that the DWP will go ahead with or without us and so we feel that it is important to try and make the process as rigorous and constructive as possible.
It’s been a hectic few weeks, but we want to make sure we find the time to keep the process as open as possible to disabled people and the disability sector. We’re pushing to relax the timetable to make more time for consultation but we’d welcome any comments or questions that people have at any point in the process.
Tom Pollard – Senior Policy & Campaigns Officer, Mind
This blog represents the views and experience of Mind, not necessarily those of other charities involved in this process