Skip to main content

Work Capability Assessment

Volume 516: debated on Monday 18 October 2010

9. What steps his Department is taking to improve the quality and accuracy of the work capability assessment. (17489)

We believe that the work capability assessment is effective at identifying a person’s functional capability for work and work-related activity, and very much more so than its predecessor, the personal capability assessment. However, I am clear that we must get this right, particularly with the large-scale migration beginning next year. On taking office we implemented some of the recommendations of a review carried out under the previous Administration. I have commissioned a new review under the chairmanship of Professor Malcolm Harrington of Birmingham university, with input from some of the leading figures among the mental health charities, to try to make sure that we get this right—that we deal with any rough edges that there may be in the system before the migration next year.

There are a number of conditions—for instance, MS—where the health of an individual may vary daily. What consideration has the Minister incorporated in the work capability assessment to ensure that the fluctuations in someone’s daily health do not affect their entitlement?

My hon. Friend is right. This is the central issue that we have to get right. It is one of the reasons I asked Professor Harrington to include Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, in his review, and why I invited mental health charities to make practical suggestions about changing the work capability assessment to identify precisely the issues that my hon. Friend has highlighted. I want to get this right. It is in no one’s interest that people should be given a steer in the direction of work if that should not happen to them. I want to look after those who genuinely need ongoing support. We will do everything we can to get this right.

Many of my constituents complain that too much weight was placed on one chat with one individual on a particular day, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) stated. That might be a good day for their condition, and the chat with that one individual may not provide a long-term in-depth knowledge of the claimant’s work capability. What help can the Minister give to assure my constituents that proper weight will be placed on the opinions of the claimant’s full medical team?

As I say, we must get this right. I have sat through a work capability assessment, so I understand exactly the issues that people are raising. I have looked carefully at the structure of it and have invited people with expertise to take part in the process. We will do everything we can to get it right. What I will not do is condemn people with mental health challenges to a life on benefits, with little opportunity of getting into employment. That would be the wrong thing to do for them. They deserve better and they will get it from this Government.

The Minister will remember one of his ministerial colleagues describing the Conservative party as the “nasty party”. Given the obvious demonising of unfortunate people who need welfare benefit, should he not just stand up, give it to us straight and say, “Be afraid, be very afraid, the nasty party is back”?

That is precisely the kind of negative politicking that I hope we will not have from the Opposition over the next few months. I believe, and I think that most Members believe, that people with long-term health problems are better off being helped back into the workplace, if possible. They are better off than they would be if they spent a lifetime on benefits, and that is what all the charities that work with them also say to us. I want to do the right thing by those people, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will unite behind a programme designed to deliver that.

Contrary to the Minister’s earlier assertion that our Government did nothing to deal with incapacity benefit, I must say that that is clearly not the case, because all of us will have heard our constituents’ experience of the work capability test. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) mentioned some of the problems, and one issue that some of my constituents have raised is that written reports from their doctors or other people are not taken into account at all; the assessment is based simply on the test carried out by the company in question. Will the Minister agree to allow written documentation as part of the test?

The hon. Lady is not right, because written evidence can already be submitted to an inquiry. The decision maker in Jobcentre Plus will look at written matters as well, and that is right and proper. I have also asked those taking responsibility for the test to ensure that we maximise the discretion that is available to all the professionals involved, so that we get the assessment right. It is of course proper that we do so, but although the previous Government introduced the assessment for new claimants they left the 2.5 million people on incapacity benefit untouched. That was a mistake, and I hope that we can all work together to put it right.