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Call To End Crude Tests For Mental Health Claimants

Call To End Crude Tests For Mental Health Claimants

The Government is under mounting pressure to reform controversial tests to assess whether people with mental health problems are fit to work.

A cross-party group of MPs is lobbying for swift change to work capability assessments, which they fear put those with mental health problems at a “severe disadvantage”.

French firm Atos Healthcare carries out the tests on all people claiming Employment Support Allowance but many of the staff have limited, if any, understanding of mental health issues.

This means claimants have to explain their conditions in face-to-face interviews that can cause them unnecessary alarm and distress.

A Commons motion calls for ¬independent medical evidence to be used in support of a claim. MPs also want to see advocates attending interviews with vulnerable claimants.

During a recent debate MPs criticised the Government for failing to implement the recommendations made by independent reviewer Professor Malcolm -Harrington, an occupational therapist.

In April 2011 he produced proposals to offer more protection for mental health patients following consultation with Mind, Mencap, and the National Autistic Society.

However, the Department for Work and ¬Pensions has not scheduled reform to be rolled out until spring next year.

Labour MP for North Durham, Kevan Jones said: “Several announcements that have been made, including about having mental health champions, have not been rolled out to assessment ¬centres.

“Atos is still being inconsistent about allowing support workers or friends to assist those with mental health illnesses who are going to assessment centres.”

Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, said: “Perhaps the most harmful thing to the credibility of the work capability assessment has been the delay in making the changes needed so that the test can work.” Ministers have defended delays insisting it was important to “road test” the overhaul before it was rolled out.

A spokesman for the DWP said: “We are not going to embark on a major overhaul of the whole exercise based on a set of ¬recommendations that are not backed by evidence without our having tested them in the way in which the -previous government tested recommendations. We are still on track to complete the gold standard review in the spring.”

The Work Capability Assessment, introduced under Labour but expanded by the Coalition, is now bleeding taxpayers’ cash at an alarming rate.

Atos Healthcare pockets £100million of public cash annually to assess whether those claiming sickness benefits are fit enough to return to work.

However in 2011 an estimated £50million more of taxpayers’ money was poured into appeals against Atos rulings. In four out of every 10 cases the initial decision was overturned. That means in 2011, 150,000 people declared fit to work by Atos had that ruling overturned.

That equates to an average 574 defeats every working day, which is simply not good enough for a company that stands to pocket more than £1billion of taxpayers’ cash once the contract has run its course, say critics.

The number of tribunal staff dealing with appeals has doubled to cope with the growing number of complaints. Appeals are set to rise higher still as the assessment rate reaches 11,000 cases a day.

However many of those who win appeals are simply called back for a fresh assessment, creating a costly revolving door.

While no one can dispute the aim of bringing down Britain’s benefits bill, taxpayers would be within their rights to ask whether the system is value for money.

In 2010, having inherited a basket case benefits process, the coalition drafted in Professor Harrington to overhaul the Work Capability Assessment. His first report delivered 25 recommendations tackling the most urgent areas for reform.

The stress of incorrect decisions and lengthy appeals is grossly unfair on genuinely sick claimants and taxpayers alike and the constant drip feed of stories of blunder and ineptitude threaten to undermine the importance of what Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is trying to achieve.

Charities have urged ministers to press the pause button on the assessment roll-out while reform takes hold but ministers are determined to carry on and must soon decide whether to extend the Atos Healthcare contract until 2017.

First signed by Labour in 2005 for seven years Atos was granted a 2015 extension by the coalition.

No one is disputing this is a difficult and complex area for any company to tackle.

Those with fluctuating conditions, particularly mental health problems, will always find achieving a fair assessment on any given day a big ask.

That does not excuse a woeful lack of common sense in many rulings and some staggering evidence of avoidable error.

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