Benefits health assessments system continues to let people down, says MPs

The health assessments system to access vital benefits for those who cannot work or face extra costs due to disability or ill-health continues to let down those who rely on it, according to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee.

In its latest report, the Committee makes several recommendations it says would be relatively quick and easy wins to improve trust, drive down the high rate of decisions reversed on appeal and reduce waiting times.

people near Big Ben in London

It says assessments should be recorded by default, with claimants having the option to opt out, adding that footage could be used to review cases more accurately without having to go to appeal, and help assessors learn from past mistakes.

The committee suggested some of the improvements could drive down the high rate of decisions reversed on appeal, which still stands at 69% for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Although the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used for Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance is due to be abolished, it will remain in place until at least 2026. Meanwhile, PIP assessments will continue, so retaining the status quo is not an option.

MPs on the Committee also recommended allowing claimants to choose between remote or in-person assessments, extending the deadline to return forms, targets to reduce assessment waiting times, and payments to people who have been forced to wait beyond the new targets.

The predecessor Committee originally published a report on significant problems in assessments in 2018, but many of the recommended changes have not been made.

Committee Chair Sir Stephen Timms MP said: ‘We surveyed eight and a half thousand people as part of our inquiry and found a profound lack of trust in the system as a consistent theme.

‘Many will welcome abolition of the WCA. The government’s process improvements, and recognition that the system causes undue stress and hardship, are steps in the right direction.

‘However, waiting years for changes won’t cut it when quicker wins are available: flexibility of choice on assessment by phone or face-to-face; recording assessments by default; extending deadlines to reduce stress; and sending claimants their reports. All this will give much-needed transparency to a process that so few trust yet affects their lives so fundamentally.

‘All efforts must be made for unnecessary limbo and stress for claimants to be put to an end.’

Responding to the report, Anela Anwar, Chief Executive of anti-poverty charity Z2K, said: ‘The Committee’s report confirms what our clients experience time and time again: health and disability benefit assessments are not fit for purpose. The criteria don’t capture the impact of someone’s condition, the assessments are frequently demeaning and distressing, and decisions are regularly wrong – DWP loses or concedes 80% of cases that go to the independent Tribunal.

‘We see each week how the current system fails people, but government’s recent White Paper proposes making Personal Independence Payment assessments even more high-stakes. This report starkly shows the risks this would cause for seriously ill and disabled people. DWP must listen to the committee, charities, and disabled people themselves, and work with people who actually have experience of disability benefit assessments to fundamentally reform the entire system.’

Vicki Nash, associate director of policy and campaigns at mental health charity Mind, said: ‘We’re pleased to see this important report from the Work and Pensions Committee. The Committee describes many of the issues that the benefits assessment system causes, including crucially that people are still experiencing psychological distress as a result of undergoing health assessments.

‘The Committee’s approach is a sensible and well thought out one. It calls for an external assessment of changes to health assessments, including the removal of the WCA, to look at the potential physical and mental health effects of these changes.

‘For a long time, Mind has been calling for the UK government to establish a commission led by disabled people to redesign the benefits assessment system. This new commission would be tasked with proposing reforms to the structure and criteria of benefits assessments and could also look at whether removing the WCA is the right decision, and if so, how it can work safely. The UK government should enable any external assessment to be carried out by such a commission.

‘We are also pleased to see the Committee call for the UK government to undertake regular reviews of the mental health impacts of benefits assessments and make sure external researchers have access to good quality data to research this independently. The sector would then have a clearer, up to date picture of the mental health impacts as the government makes changes to the assessment system.’

Image: Heidi Fin


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