GPs have voted unanimously in favour of scrapping the controversial work capability assessment (WCA), the test that determines who is eligible for sickness benefits, to prevent harming "some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society". At the annual GPs' conference, doctors backed a motion stating that the computer-based assessments were "inadequate" and "have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons". They called for the tests to be replaced with a more "rigorous and safe system".
The vote at their annual conference in Liverpool reflects rising concern within the medical profession over the government's use of the work capability assessment (WCA) to reassess recipients of the outgoing incapacity benefit to determine whether they should receive the replacement benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA). Since the test was introduced in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people have against decisions to refuse them the benefit; around 40% of appeals are successful. Large numbers of patients with terminal and incurable conditions have been found fit for work after undergoing a 30-minute assessment, carried out by a private company, Atos Healthcare.
Andrew Holden, a GP from Petersfield in Hampshire, said the system was not able to distinguish between patients who really needed help and those who did not. "Since the system was introduced in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously and people with complex illnesses say that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems," he told the conference, proposing the motion. "The computer-based assessments are carried out by a healthcare professional but one not necessarily trained in the field of the patient's disability, which is particularly important when it comes to mental health issues."
Laurence Buckman, chair of the BMA's GPs' committee, said: "When 40% of appeals against the assessments are successful at tribunal hearings, something is clearly very wrong with the system. Being in work is good for people's overall health and wellbeing, but GPs are seeing too many patients who genuinely need to be on incapacity benefit coming in very concerned and confused by the system. The government needs to look again at the whole assessment process and replace it with one that is fit for purpose."
Dean Marshall, chair of the Scottish general practitioners' committee, which has already passed a similar motion, welcomed the vote. "These assessments can have a devastating effect on our patients' mental and physical health. There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers being assessed as fit to work and a massive number of appeals have been made against these decisions. The frequency of successful appeals seems to us to demonstrate the mechanism's shortcomings," he said. "Our patients are very concerned and confused about these assessments. Many are in fear of how they will cope with the removal of, or cuts to, their benefits. Evidence appears to suggest that people with serious health conditions are sometimes being declared fit for work."
Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who has raised a number of concerns about the WCA, said: "The government should not dismiss the strength of feeling being expressed by the medical profession in this motion – the very people the DWP are reliant on to carry out the assessment. As the motion reflects, assessing whether people are able to work is right in principle, but in so many respects the practice has been appalling. Thousands of people have suffered because of the decisions Atos get wrong time and again, costing the public purse millions."
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said improvements were being made to the system. "We're absolutely committed to the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit and helping those who are fit to move back into work. Under the old system too many lives were written off. The work capability assessment introduced in 2008 was not fit for purpose, which is why we are implementing all the recommendations made by our independent reviewer to make this a better and fairer process. We want to keep improving the WCA," the department wrote in an emailed statement.
The vote means that calling for the WCA to be scrapped is now the policy of the BMA GPs' committee, which represents 44,000 family doctors across the UK, and the committee will attempt to make its views clear to the DWP.
Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian