Work Capability Assessment – Not Fit for Purpose

On 10th October there was a 90 minute Westminster Hall debate on the Work Programme and, as a Member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee which scrutinises the Department’s work closely, I stated in my speech that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is ‘not fit for purpose’.

I highlighted the case of a claimant who was referred to the Work Programme with terminal cancer and whose life expectancy was shorter than the WCA work-ready prognosis.

I believe that the damage and harm this process is doing cannot be underestimated.  The Government must act now and undertake an immediate evaluation of WCA with the view to revising the assessment process into work-related and health-related components. This would identify the help claimants with health conditions or disabilities need to get into work.

My speech in full is below:

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I apologise for being a few minutes late, Mr Walker. I had the debate down in the diary for 3 o’clock, but I am glad to be here.

It will come as no surprise that I take a slightly different view from the rosy one portrayed by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). In fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) alluded to a different view in his remarks about the start of the programme. As hon. Members probably know, in spite of the difficult economic circumstances faced by the Work programme—which the report acknowledged—the levels of employment achieved through the programme in the first 14 months would have been achieved without it. For the first 14 months, therefore, it was not a success.

I want to focus on a number of points today. We need a 21st century welfare-to-work system that reflects not only our current economic reality, but the dynamic economy and flexible labour market that we need for the future. I am afraid that the Work programme fails in that regard on a number of levels. It fails, first, in terms of the efficacy of welfare-to-work providers, and I shall try and pick out a few points on that in a moment. Secondly, in contrast to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Aberconwy, it fails to address the growing number of long-term unemployed, and that was really the thrust of the message in our report. The Work programme is also not helping with the change in our economy. It is perpetuating a low-skill, low-aspiration economy. We need to ensure that a welfare-to-work programme complements the type of economy that we want, but it is failing to do so.

I shall focus now on the Work programme providers. We have seen a pattern across public services of private sector providers delivering public services, whether in the Work programme, in adult care, or, increasingly, in the NHS. I do not have a problem with that where private providers innovate, add value or capacity. However, I do have a problem where private providers put profit before people and the services that they deliver. When that is the case, I find it totally unacceptable. It is not acceptable that staffing levels in some Work programme providers mean caseloads of 120 to 180 jobseekers per adviser. It is not acceptable that advisers are not adequately accredited or qualified to fulfil their role. It is not acceptable—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) mentioned this—that small specialist organisations, which are disqualified from applying for contracts separately because they are too small and do not have the financial capacity to bid for them, are lured in and used as bid candy for contract bids, but are then not used. They have a track record of achieving success, particularly for jobseekers with specialist needs, but are not being used. It is not acceptable that there are no minimum standards other than job outcomes, that there is no effective regulation and that there is a lack of transparency of Work programme data, which prohibits effective scrutiny.

One of the Select Committee’s biggest concerns was that the Work programme is failing to address the growing number of long-term unemployed people, particularly young people. The Work programme was supposedly designed to cater for that through a payment-by-results system, with differential pricing based on the type of benefit that jobseekers received, but evidence received by the Committee shows that that is clearly not working, with those furthest from the jobs market being parked and providers creaming off those who are job-ready and easiest to place.

The Select Committee recommended a more holistic approach to identifying the barriers to work—for example, health problems or housing. A number of specialist providers cater for people who are homeless, and homelessness is an increasing problem. That comprehensive, more holistic assessment must be needs-based, and funding models must be developed that reflect an appropriate level of up-front funding.

Related to that, two years after the Select Committee’s report on the work capability assessment, which highlighted our growing concerns at the time, the Committee took more evidence that the WCA is not fit for purpose. One example involved a claimant with terminal cancer whose life expectancy was shorter than the WCA work-ready prognosis, but who had been referred to the Work programme. What is happening about that issue? It has been mentioned before. We are now two years on, but certainly in my constituency surgery, I frequently encounter such cases. Why are the Government not doing more on that?

I urge the Government to act now and undertake an immediate evaluation of the WCA, with a view to revising the assessment process into work-related and health-related components. That, too, was a key recommendation in the Select Committee’s report. It would identify the help that claimants with health conditions or disabilities need in order to get into work.

Let me move on to consider how we develop a welfare-to-work programme that will help to skill up our economy. The WCA is just one example of how the system is not fit for purpose. The Work programme, as the flagship welfare-to-work programme, is failing to help to develop a high-skilled work force. There are indications that opportunities to train beyond, for example, level 3 skills training are being denied to jobseekers. Instead of that type of training being supported, jobseekers are being told that they must attend the training provided through the Work programme and only that. Our welfare-to-work programmes must be more flexible than that. We must be developing our skills base, not restricting it. Just as our economy demands increased flexibility from our labour market, so must our welfare-to-work programmes be more flexible.

Finally, I want to express my concerns about the Work programme in the context of other welfare reforms. Last month, the National Audit Office published a damning report about universal credit. I see direct parallels in how the Work programme and universal credit have been developed and implemented. A key failing identified in the NAO report was the culture and leadership of the Department, which created what was described as a “fortress” culture. I hope that, in addition to responding to my remarks about the work capability assessment, the Minister can explain how she will deal with that culture and ensure that there is more openness and transparency in her Department.

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