Dr Litchfield has produced the 5th and final Statutory WCA Review. This Review is by far the most interesting and revealing.
Lichfield says WCA not fit for purpose
WCA Test shown not to be accurate
Different ESA Objectives incompatible with each other
Mandatory Reconsiderations Not effective say DWP staff.
ESA payments should continue during Mandatory Reconsideration
Problems with the Assessment Backlog
Too many 16-24 year olds being written off by ESA
Use of regulation 35 is successful
WCA must be scrapped.
According to Dr Litchfield, the WCA has exhausted its usefulness, but it should not be replaced immediately as it needs to be ‘embedded’ first to give time for a new system of assessment to be devised. After 5 years of recommendations, mainly aimed at improving the ‘claimant journey’ rather than the test accuracy, Dr Litchfield does not believe the current test can be improved further, but nor does he believe that it fulfills its intended purpose, which was to determine benefit eligibility on the basis of capability for work. ‘There must be clarity of purpose – determining benefit eligibility and supporting employment outcomes may not be compatible objectives’. It was however the basis on which the WCA was introduced.
WCA EVIDENCE BASED REVIEW
There is also a long technical section devoted to the WCA Evidence Based Review. This review has its limitations which are well explained by Dr Litchfield, but it also highlights a very important point: when compared with another means of testing capability for work, the WCA performed much better than the alternative test which was proposed. But when it comes to assessing lack of capability for work, the WCA performance is well below average. ‘When measuring the specificity of the two assessments, the WCA performed better, scoring 87% in comparison to 63% for the 19-activity AA. However, when considering sensitivity, the AA was found to perform better, scoring 72% in comparison to 44%. High specificity would indicate a good capacity to identify those who are able to work while high sensitivity would reflect a good capacity to identify those with limited capability for work’. What this means is that the WCA is good at identifying people fit for work, but ineffective (44%) at identifying people who cannot work. Considering the consequences of being found fit for work when somebody is not, the conservative approach (which in this case does not mean the Tory approach) would have been to allow a few people fit for work to claim ESA rather than to deprive people unable to work of any income. This was not the approach taken, with the all too familiar consequences, and Dr Litchfield does not comment on this.
There is also a section on Mandatory Reconsiderations. Not much can be said about these as DWP has not produced any figures, statistics or indications of how MRs are performing, although they were introduced over a year ago, but it seems that ‘half DWP staff of dispute resolution Decision Makers perceived the process to be effective, with even fewer original Decision Makers sharing the view’. In other terms, less than 50 % of DWP staff perceive the process to be effective which is very worrying. DWP staff as a whole seem to have a better perception of the WCA process than claimants, and the fact that less than half of DWP staff perceive the Mandatory Reconsideration process to be effective would indicate an even lower level of satisfaction among claimants.
In addition, it seems that most DWP staff dealing with Mandatory Reconsiderations are the same people who previously dealt with the now abolished Social Fund. It is all credit to DWP not to have made these staff redundant, but what it means is DWP ‘dispute resolution teams’ dealing with Mandatory Reconsiderations are not ‘located in the areas that they serve, case files have to be requested from other offices and posted across the UK using secure postal services’. Which means more delays, and which may partly or entirely account for DWPs failure to produce any figures on waiting times, but anecdoctal evidence shows that some claimants have waited more than 6 months for their Mandatory Reconsideration outcome, without income. Dr Litchfield does highlight this issue with Mandatory Reconsiderations, although it is outside his terms of reference, by saying “Claiming JSA while undergoing mandatory reconsideration can also be problematic, as people can be informed by Jobcentre staff that they are too unwell to start a claim. This can in turn leave people without support at a time when they need it most. Given a JSA payment is the same as the ESA assessment rate, the DWP should explore whether the ESA assessment payment could be continued through mandatoryreconsideration as it is through the appeals process.” This point was raised by the W&P Committee for DWP to consider, but in the Government’s latest response to the Committee published yesterday, this recommendation was rejected, and it is not part of Dr Litchfield’s recommendations as this is outside the scope of his review.
It is impossible to ignore the WCA reviewers spending time on social media to analyse the perceptions of the WCA on Twitter. The findings were that ‘On average, around 11% were categorised as ‘negative’, compared to only 3% ‘positive’. The remaining 86% were recorded as neutral’. Only 11% negative? For Dr Litchfield, the main reason for these negative perceptions of the WCA process is ‘The regular changes to the assessment would certainly appear to influence negative perceptions. Not only do they keep the WCA in the public eye but each change may reinforce the view that the assessment is flawed’. Another point he makes is that ‘Any assessment should not only be fair but be perceived to be fair’, but for Dr Litchfield, the issue seems to be with failures to communicate properly about the process or the outcomes rather than with inherent flaws to the test or to the environment within which the test is performed.
TRENDS OVER TIME
Dr Litchfield then looks at the trends over time and highlights from October 2013 a substantial increase in the number of claimants placed in the Support Group, which he partly explains by the backlog and the way it was cleared. ‘This spike is likely to be a feature of the way in which the WCA backlog was addressed by the Department and the Provider’. This confirms what had always been suspected until now, that in order to clear the backlog, DWP and Atos prioritised the worst cases which could be cleared through paper based reviews, because it is much quicker, leading to a disproportionate number of claimants being placed in the Support Group.
But this is not enough to explain the spike and anomalies which show a deviation from the initial intent of the WCA, namely the disproportionate number of young people (16-24) with mental health conditions being placed in the Support Group with sometimes a very short prognosis (a word Dr Litchfield intends to have banned from the WCA terminology). Looking closer at this trend, it seems that the main reason for it is the very widespread use of Regulation 35 (2) (b). ‘The main driver for the increase appears to be the use of Regulation 35 (2) (b), where an individual is considered to constitute a substantial risk of harm’. Also contrary to what was highlighted in the last review, there is also now a close concordance between the recommendations of HCP and Decision Makers in the application of Regulation 35 (2) (b) and ‘86% were attributed to risk of harm resulting from an identified mental health condition’. Dr Litchfield could not find any reasons behind the more widespread application of Regulation 35 (2) (b) and is asking DWP to investigate as a matter of urgency whether it is correctly applied. It is a shame that Dr Litchfield does not push the logic further by wondering why HP and Decision Makers are using this regulation more widely with this specific group, and that he did not look at the broader environment, but again that was not part of his brief. Dr Litchfield repeatedly uses the expression ‘unintended consequences’ in relation to changes applied to the WCA process over time. One limitation of this approach is that it ignores the impact of other changes outside the WCA process which could have made the WRAG a ‘toxic group’.
To conclude, although Dr Litchfield no longer thinks the test is fit for purpose, he recommends giving the WCA a period of stability because ‘it is by no means perfect but there is no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf’. After 4 reviews saying that it was the right test, this is a poor consolation. There has been a glaring omission in all these reviews, but as it was not part of the Reviewer’s terms of reference, this is not surprising.
Ultimately, the raison d’être of the WCA was to determine which claimants were fit for work, and the litmus test is the number of people found fit for work who have actually found a job. That has never been monitored by DWP and the only figures available are for ESA claimants with a short prognosis forced onto the Work Programme, with dismal results. That no alternative can be ‘pulled off the shelf’ is no justification for keeping a test which is unable to distinguish between claimants fit and unfit for work, which leaves them without income for lengthy periods, and which punishes people for being sick or disabled. Dr Litchfield’s last review confirms what claimants going through the process have been saying all along. The test has been improved as much as it could be, but it has not been made more accurate at identifying which claimants are fit or unfit to work.