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Work Capability Assessment

Volume 526: debated on Monday 28 March 2011

5. What recent progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of the Harrington review of work capability assessment. (49042)

19. What recent progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of the Harrington review of work capability assessment. (49056)

We are committed to taking forward Professor Harrington’s recommendations so that we can make the system we inherited from the previous Government fairer and more effective. Many of the changes he proposed are already in place, and we will implement the remainder by the summer, to coincide with the first work capability assessments of incapacity benefit claimants taking part in the full nationwide reassessment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. What guidance and training will be given to decision makers and Atos Healthcare professionals on implementing the new work capability assessment effectively and fairly, and in particular what training will be given for assessing people with fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and ME?

Staff decision makers in Jobcentre Plus and Atos assessors are currently going through a renewed training programme to take into account the changes proposed by Professor Harrington. We have also now moved ahead with, and pretty much put in place, the recommendation to have champions in the network who specialise in dealing with some of the more challenging conditions which will undoubtedly be a factor in the assessments, and on which expertise may not previously have existed to a sufficient degree.

One of the findings of the Harrington report was that the Jobcentre Plus decision makers were not, in fact, making decisions; rather, they were simply rubber-stamping the Atos assessments. What steps have been taken to ensure that that is no longer the case, and will the Minister publish some figures on this so that we can have some reassurance that that has actually changed?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. That was clearly one of the flaws in the system we inherited. We have retrained decision makers, instructing them to take into account a broader range of evidence than simply the assessment so that claimants now have the opportunity to submit proper evidence from their own medical practitioners, and we have made it absolutely clear to decision makers that they are in charge. We have also introduced a process of reconsideration within Jobcentre Plus to reinforce that process.

The Harrington review contained some very welcome and important recommendations that the Government are implementing, including on increasing the discretion of Jobcentre Plus staff. In contrast, the Department recently introduced regulations making the descriptors for work capability assessments more prescriptive. As Professor Harrington will now be reviewing the descriptors as well, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will take into account Professor Harrington’s recommendations in that area, and look in general at the descriptors being applied to work capability assessments?

I can absolutely give that assurance. We want to get this right, and we have introduced these changes because we think they improve the process. For example, we expect more mental health patients to end up in the support group as a result of the changes we have introduced. I have made it very clear to everyone involved that if there are further ways of improving the process, as a result either of recommendations from Professor Harrington or of the experience of the national roll-out, we will move quickly to make the necessary changes.

I want to be clear on what the Minister is saying will be in place by June in respect of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, and whether that will include the new descriptors—I understand that they will be another year away. I ask about this because my constituents have already been through the system as they are the first to be migrated from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. It is important to ensure that they have been assessed properly, because they will also be the first cohort whose contributory ESA will be removed from them after they have been on it for a year—there is an unfairness in that process too.

We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the decision-making process is correct. Professor Harrington did not recommend changes to the descriptors ahead of the national roll-out; he recommended that they should be part of the second year review process. I invited him to accelerate that work, and if and when he makes further recommendations, either before or as part of the second year review, we will move quickly to implement them.