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Work Capability Assessment

Volume 534: debated on Monday 24 October 2011

7. When he plans to bring forward new work capability assessment descriptors for mental health and fluctuating conditions. (75990)

We have received suggested descriptors for mental, cognitive and intellectual function from Professor Harrington’s working group. Given that they represent a substantial departure from how the current assessment works, we are considering what impact they will have and will come forward with proposals soon. We have not yet received any recommendations from Professor Harrington’s separate working group on fluctuating conditions.

In July the Minister received recommendations for changes to the mental health descriptors from Mind, the National Autistic Society and Mencap, and although he says that the Government will be bringing forward proposals shortly, will he specify when those changes will be implemented?

The challenge facing us is that the recommendations will involve a complete change of the work capability assessment, not simply for mental health issues, but for physical issues, and is therefore a multi-year project. We are considering whether we can incorporate elements of the recommendations into the current approach much more quickly. I am concerned to ensure that we do the right thing by people with mental health conditions, and I want to ensure that we take any sensible steps as quickly as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our approach should focus on what can be done to help people back into the world of work and on helping them with what they can do, rather than on any scintilla of a suggestion of people being punished for what they cannot do?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a crucial point. We are not trying to do people down, but looking to help those with the potential to make more of their lives to do so. The assessment is all about working out who has the potential to get back into the workplace, and through the Work programme, we can deliver the specialist support that they need to do so.

This morning I met members of Headway East London concerned about the impact of this situation on people who are looking for work but feel that they are being penalised when they find it and then cannot cope with it. They talked about the chaos of the benefits system. When will the Minister be coming forward with these proposals and reassuring my constituents that they will be in a better position?

We are taking significant steps to sort out the problems to which the hon. Lady refers. The introduction of the universal credit in 2013 will completely transform how our benefits system works. It will be much easier for people with disabilities to move back into work step by step—initially, perhaps, by doing a few hours’ work and then by entering part-time and then full-time employment. It will transform their prospects.

Given Atos Healthcare’s past performance, no one has faith in the ability of the current work capability assessment or Atos fairly to assess fluctuating conditions in particular. Will the Minister work with Atos to ensure that the new descriptors are implemented as soon as possible and that Atos staff receive additional training to improve their performance and restore the faith of claimants and the general public in the assessment process?

I will have to wait and see what the recommendations are, but as a result of Professor Harrington’s first report, it is now decision makers in Jobcentre Plus who take the decision about an individual. I have told charitable groups representing people with a variety of conditions that the door is open to them to brief, train and discuss with those decision makers the issues facing such people so that they are as well informed as possible.

Last week I met representatives of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who expressed concerns about the descriptors attached to vision. Will the Minister meet the RNIB and other representatives of blind and partially sighted people to address those concerns so that we have vision descriptors that are fit for purpose?

I have regular meetings with groups representing not just blind people, but those with various disabilities, and I will continue to do so. The object of the exercise is to help those who are blind or visually impaired back into work. Surely it is much better to find them a place in the workplace than leave them on benefits for the rest of their lives.