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Work Capability Assessment

Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

We remain committed to reviewing continually and further improving the assessment. Dr Litchfield’s independent review was published in December, and the Government will publish their response in the first quarter of this year.

It has come to my attention through research conducted by several disability campaign groups that as many as four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the Department’s work capability assessment. Will the Secretary of State reflect on those figures? When he finds them to be true, as they are based on his Department’s data, will he come back to the House and apologise to the families of the deceased, who suffered unnecessarily in their last precious days? We can recuperate benefits that are awarded incorrectly, but we cannot recuperate a person’s life.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people and families who have lost their loved ones. There is a system in place for people with life-threatening illnesses, and particularly for those who are likely to die. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Chairman of which is in the Chamber, we are trying to get the decision making down to seven days, which we would all welcome.

Am I right in thinking that we spend more than £13 billion on sickness and incapacity benefit for almost 2.5 million people of working age? Is it not right to ensure that the support goes to those who need it most?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, the scheme was brought in by the previous Administration—the Opposition have selective memory loss about that. We are determined to get the scheme right to help people get back into work and to help those who cannot get back into work through the benefits system.

As the Court of Appeal recently threw out the Government’s appeal against the decision that the work capability assessment disadvantages those with long-term mental health problems and learning disabilities such as autism, will the Minister accept that the test is simply not designed to deal with such people? What will he do about that?

The Harrington report referred to that matter specifically. Ensuring that people with hidden disabilities get all the help we can give them is is close to my heart, but the Harrington pilot is on hold because of the judicial review.

In my part of the world, the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment are administered by Atos. When my constituents finally get an assessment, they find an organisation that is as insensitive as it is incompetent. Would not the best way of improving the work capability assessment be to remove the incapable Atos?

We inherited the contract with Atos as the company running the WCA. We were not happy with the quality of its work, which is why we brought in measures. We accept that that is causing delays to the system, but it is better to have the necessary quality than to get it wrong.

How many people have to lose their appeal after 12 months of trying to get justice done? How many more people—including the four a day referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—have to die before they get an appeal? Surely it is time for even this insensitive Government to understand that Atos is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned, and that we should start all over again.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman said that all the way through to his own Government when they brought in Atos. What the Opposition put in place when they were in government was a complete mess. We are determined to get it right. We are listening to why the tribunal judges make their decisions so that we get the decisions right earlier on.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that that the Department has service level agreements with Atos and Capita that include claimant satisfaction and timeliness?