Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the work capability assessment (WCA) has today asked for evidence about face-to-face medicals for employment and support allowance. Interested individuals and organisations have until 16 September to respond. However, the latest review makes absolutely no mention of the massive cuts in activities and descriptors which took place in March of this year and which are by far the biggest problem for current claimants.

Professor Harrington was appointed by the last government to undertake regular reviews of the WCA, as required by the Welfare Reform Act. His first review made a number of recommendations, including the piloting of tape-recording medicals, decision makers telephoning claimants and putting in place mental health champions.

Whilst virtually all of Harrington’​s recommendations were accepted, the reality is that they have so far made very little difference to claimants. For example, we are still waiting for a decision on recording medicals, now that the pilot is over.

But, far more importantly, the latest review asks no specific questions about the introduction of a much harsher work capability assessment in March of this year. The new WCA introduced entirely new concepts, such as ‘​mobilisi​ng’​ instead of walking, and simply threw out a number of physical and mental health activities in order to make it much harder to be awarded ESA.

The lack of specific questions about the March changes to descriptors is particularly disturbing as one of Harrington’​s tasks in this second review is “​Looking in detail at the descriptors for mental, cognitive and intellectual conditions and other fluctuating conditions.”​

We know that Harrington has already done work on the mental health descriptors with major disability charities, so why no questions on the issue in his call for evidence? It leaves the reader wondering whether Harrington thinks that ordinary claimants aren’​t capable of understanding such ‘​complex’​ issues or whether he just isn’​t interested in their opinions.

We asked for confirmation from the DWP’​s ‘​WCA Independent Review Team’​ that views on the new harsher WCA were not being asked for and a spokesperson responded that:

“​The call for evidence does not ask a specific question about the changes made in March 2011. Professor Harrington has publicly stated his views on these changes, but as they are now implemented and part of the WCA process the call for evidence is asking for robust evidence as to what is/isn'​t working and whether further changes are needed. In addition, Professor Harrington is already considering the mental, cognitive and intellectual descriptors;​ the fluctuating conditions descriptors;​ and cancer provisions as part of his second review.”​

This failure to ask openly about how the WCA has been made even worse over the last six months, gives the impression that Harrington is being used to make cosmetic alterations to the way the test is carried out whilst, in reality, claimants are being massively and increasingly prevented from having a fair assessment.

When we put it to the DWP that Harrington’​s review is now reduced to no more than mere ‘​tinkerin​g’​, a spokesperson replied –​ rather bizarrely –​ that:

“​Whilst the descriptors are important, they are only one part of the assessmen​t.”​

Well, yes, but they are virtually the only part of the assessment that will get you an award of ESA. The spokesperson added that:

“​The service provided by both Jobcentre Plus and Atos will also have an impact on the claimant'​s experience, and that is what Professor Harrington'​s first review sought to address - and something the latest call for evidence asks about. However, it'​s not fair to say this review is no more than tinkering: the call for evidence specifically asks what (if any) further areas should be considered as part of the third annual review. There is also the ongoing programme of work associated with the year two review which will produce recommendations at the end of the year.”​

So, claimants can ask Harrington to include issues relating to the harsh new WCA in his third annual review? Sadly, that may be rather too late for many thousands of people currently going through the WCA every week.

The reality is that for Harrington to state in his call for evidence that he is ‘​pleased and gratified’​ with the progress made by the DWP in implementing his recommendations, whilst utterly ignoring the fact that claimants are now dramatically worse off under the WCA than they were when he began work is nothing short of insulting. The narrowness of his enquiry, at least where claimants are concerned, goes a long way to entirely undermining his credibility as an independent reviewer.

Nonetheless, in spite of these huge shortcomings, we strongly recommend that members do respond to Harrington and tell him exactly what they think of his utter failure to address the catastrophic changes to the WCA introduced in March of this year.

The call for evidence can be found on the DWP website.


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