Why I’m resigning from the panel that scrutinises work capability assessments

The DWP won’t act on growing concern about the effect of the reassessment process on people with mental health problems



People march against welfare changes at the Hardest Hit protest in May 2011. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

For the last couple of years, welfare reform has consistently been an important issue for people with mental health problems. And one aspect in particular has dominated: the work capability assessment (WCA). It’s worth remembering that the WCA was initially conceived before the recession, when this country was estimated to be within a year of achieving full employment. Even in those early days, we at Mind urged caution as we had real concerns about how a new system would be applied.

It’s in everybody’s interests to get this right. When about 40% of people on incapacity benefit have a mental health problem, it makes sense to design the new system so it can properly assess the needs of people with mental health problems. In July 2010, I joined the Harrington scrutiny panel, which was set up to oversee the work of the WCA independent review team. My role was to give advice and criticism regarding the areas the reviewer was looking at and the changes they were recommending.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has committed to making some changes arising from the independent review, but these will take time, and some fundamental changes required haven’t even started to be addressed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are being reassessed using a test that is still not fit for purpose. Approximately 50% of people are appealing against the decision, and a remarkable half of those appeals are being upheld, meaning that as many as one in four tests are wrong. The cost to the taxpayer of the tribunal system alone is £50m, about half the £100m a year being spent on reassessment.

I spent some time last week at Mind’s Infoline. Call after call was coming in from individuals with a mental health problem, or a member of their family, anxious about the reassessment letter, concerned about having to appeal and the potential impact on their lives. We’ve heard about jobcentres being shocked when someone who is clearly unwell turns up having been told that they are fit for work. The callers to our line were not benefit scroungers – they were ordinary people whose health had put them in a very vulnerable state. Ordinary people desperate to recover and be able to work, but who just weren’t yet well enough. And instead of offering support and help to recover and then find and stay in work, the WCA process is making their health worse and so, ironically, the prospect of a job even less likely.

The time has come to call a halt in the reassessment process until real changes are made. It’s damaging people’s lives. It’s costing the taxpayer a fortune. And it certainly isn’t fulfilling its purpose of supporting people with mental health problems on their journey back to work. This government has some good aspirations on mental health set out in an excellent mental health strategy – it’s seen the importance of good mental health to the country and it’s acknowledged the high cost of poor mental health. But when it comes to benefits and supporting people out of work to get back into work, the DWP is letting people down.

I have taken the decision to leave the Harrington scrutiny group. Our concerns about the reality of the WCA have grown, but we see insufficient recognition of the need to change the approach, and the need to do so quickly, before more and more people are subjected to a process that isn’t working.

Mind will continue to campaign on improving the WCA until people with mental health problems get the support and respect they deserve. I hope the DWP will hear these concerns and act upon them.



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