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New incapacity test gets easier

6 December 2007
In spite of Peter Hain touring the TV studios last month announcing his get tough approach to 'sicknote Britain' the reality is that the DWP has just made the new test of incapacity for work to be introduced under Employment and Support Allowance marginally easier to pass than it was.

In addition, Hain's claim that the new test concentrates on what people 'can do' rather than what they can't turns out to be a complete fabrication.

On November 19th, accompanied by much media hype, the Secretary of state announced "A new medical test that will score a person's capability to work" as part of Peter Hain's "drive to end sick-note Britain."

The new test, it was claimed

" . . . will assess what an individual can do - rather than can't do. For example you will no longer score points simply because you are unable to walk more than 400 metres. Instead the new test will look at things like a person's ability to use a computer keyboard or a mouse, because this type of task is likely to be needed in the workplace."

The truth is that the 'new' test is in fact the same revised Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) which was announced in October 2006 (see: New incapacity test: physical points slashed, mental points boosted) and revised in February 2007 (See: Clampdown on future mental health claimants)

All that has changed is that a new report on the revised test has been produced following another very small scale trial. The report recommends some changes to be made to the new PCA, which will now be known as the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The changes are generally favourable to claimants, including:

Walking: 15 points to be given for being unable to walk more than 50 metres, instead of being unable to walk more than 30 metres. 9 points to be awarded for being unable to walk more than 100 metres.

Reaching: a descriptor relating to being unable to reach upwards is to be reinstated.

Remaining conscious: the wording is to be changed to show that claimants need to get a 'useful' warning rather than just a 'warning' of an episode of lost or altered consciousness.

In total, changes have been recommended for 5 physical and three mental health activities. With the exception of changes to the picking up and moving activity, where a 1 litre jug is to be replaced with a 0.5 litre carton and a 2 litre jug is to change to a 1 litre carton, all the changes seem designed to make it marginally easier to score points.

And what of 'a person's ability to use a computer keyboard or a mouse' and looking at what a person can, rather than can't, do? Well, the truth is, the descriptor remains the same as the one announced in the September 2006 report:

'Cannot use a conventional keyboard or mouse.'

The latest report, which prompted Peter Hain's less than accurate claims, was produced by the Technical Working Group which concluded that the new test is

"a reliable and accurate tool for assessing limited capability for work."

This is in spite of the fact that the report was based once again on a tiny sample of claimants, just 212 in total. In addition, according to an insider:

Doctors had to make up their own questions to get information relating to the new test, so different doctors asked different questions rather than using the LiMA software which will be used when the new test is introduced

The test was carried out using only doctors, when the new test is introduced many of those carrying it out will be nurses or other health professionals.

The only evidence seen by the technical working group was a current and a new assessment carried out on each claimant by an Atos Healthcare doctor. They did not see the claimant's own claim form or any independent medical evidence, from the claimant's GP, for example. Thus the Working Group had no way whatsoever of checking the possibility that both of the reports were inaccurate. Given the extremely high success rate at tribunals this is an extraordinary failing.

It is astonishing then, that a group of experts, on such scant evidence with no controls or independent reports at their disposal could conclude that the WCA is a reliable and accurate tool. What makes it even more astonishing is that Benefits and Work understands that three of the experts work for the Sainsbury's Centre for Mental Health, an organisation previously held in high regard by many in this field. Moreover, the report shows that 53% of claimants with a mental health problem were found fit for work under the new test, compared to 38% under the current test, suggesting that the committee believes that many people with mental health problems should be forced off incapacity benefits and onto Jobseekers Allowance.

Benefits and Work has made an application for copies of the minutes of the Technical Working Group meetings, including the names of all those present. We hope to get answers from those responsible for endorsing this unscientific and disreputable process.

You can download a copy of the new report from this link.

© 2007 Steve Donnison