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Fundamental redesign of disability benefits system needed – MPs

There should be a “fundamental redesign” of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of “grave” flaws in the current system, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has said.

The Committee has recommended that the ESA redesign should aim to ensure that the process properly identifies claimants’ health barriers to employment and the particular support they need.

Led by Dame Anne Begg, the group of MPs stated that the withdrawal of Atos from its contract to conduct assessments of ESA claimants in March would not address the problems on its own. A replacement is expected to be appointed early next year.

Within the report it was also stated that ESA was “not achieving its purpose of helping people in work in the short to medium term to move back into employment”.

Committee chair Dame Anne stated that the current system needs to be improved and that prior to Atos withdrawing from its contract it had become a “lightning rod for all negativity”.

She has called on Mark Harper, who was appointed minister for disabled people in last week's government reshuffle, to respond positively to the report's recommendations.

Dame Anne said: "We know that the redesign can't happen overnight, but the current system needs to be improved now, because it is clearly causing claimants considerable distress and anxiety.

“The re-letting of the contract provides an opportunity to address some of the problems. The new contract needs to set out robust and clear service standards on the quality and timeliness of assessments and the reports produced by the contractor, and for the way claimants are dealt with.

"DWP has acknowledged that this will cost more money, but this is justified if the service provided by the new contractor is better. To ensure this is the case, DWP needs to rigorously monitor the service standards to ensure they are being met and to take immediate action, including imposing penalties, if they are not. This has not always happened with the Atos contract."

In the short-term, the Committee has also recommended that DWP should take overall responsibility for the end-to-end ESA claims process, including taking decisions on whether claimants need a face-to-face assessment, rather than this decision being made by the assessment provider.

Responding to the report, the minister for disabled said: “We are bringing in a new provider and a new contract for Work Capability Assessments (WCA) to deliver the best possible service for claimants, increase the number of assessments and reduce waiting times.

 “Since its introduction in 2008 by the previous government, there have been four independent reviews of the WCA and a fifth is under way. We have accepted most of the recommendations and made numerous improvements.

“More than 700,000 people who were on Incapacity Benefit are now looking for, or making steps to return to work after a WCA - it is crucial that we continue this important process to ensure that people are not written off and we get a fair deal for the taxpayer.”

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, stated that reforms must go deeper than simply changing the provider of fitness-to-work tests.

“The test should be more than an exercise in getting people off of benefits. It should make sure disabled people get the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need to find and keep a job,” he added.

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