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Plan to scrap notorious work assessments

UNPOPULAR face-to-face interviews look set to be sidelined in a new shake-up of controversial work-capability assessments.

PLAN: Dr Paul Litchfield says better written testimony would save time.
PLAN: Dr Paul Litchfield says better written testimony would save time.

Ministers are examining whether hour-long WCA interviews, which have been described by claimants as demeaning, are routinely necessary.

The move would be part of reforms to streamline the application process, address a huge backlog of claims, reduce the number of appeals and cut costs.

If the plan goes ahead, the system would need less input from health outsourcing companies such as Atos, which last month pulled out of its £500 million contract to carry out face-to-face tests.

The revised system would give greater emphasis to written evidence from the applicant and his or her doctor.

The plan follows recommendations made by Dr Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer at BT, who carried out the latest review of the assessment process.

In his 100-page report he blamed face-to-face tests for delays in processing claims. He said 82% of applications in 2012 took longer than the 91-day target.

He suggested the process could be made more efficient if written evidence from applicants and their doctors was improved and if interviews took place only if this information was insufficient.

Interviews could also take place if an application was under review after being turned down, he said.

The Government has agreed to investigate Dr Litchfield's proposals and carry out a "full impact assessment".

In its response to Dr Litchfield's review, which has just been published, the Department for Work and Pensions said: "This is a sensible suggestion given his observation that face-to-face assessments are a major contributing factor in delays in the WCA process and minimising unnecessary appointments would have a significant impact on the process.

"We agree that expediting the WCA process will reduce the uncertainty faced by claimants, improve outcomes for those not found to be eligible for employment and support allowance and will reduce the consequent burden on taxpayers."

Currently, interviews are a key part of the work capability assessment for most people applying for employment and support allowance, which replaced incapacity benefit.

Around 80% of applicants attend interviews in which they are asked intimate questions to assess if they are fit to work.

Citizens Advice Scotland, which has handled tens of thousands of complaints about the WCAs, last night welcomed the plans.

Beth Reid, CAS policy officer, said: "What we need is a system which delivers a faster process of assessment, and delivers accurate and fair decisions. If moving away from face-to-face assessments achieves this, then we would support that."

Work capability assessments were introduced in 2008 to encourage the long-term sick and disabled back into work.

Applicants assessed as not being fit for work qualify for employment and support allowance, while those assessed as being fit for work are eligible for jobseeker's allowance.

A DWP spokeswoman said: "It is in everyone's interest to have an assessment which is objective, consistent and fair. In line with the government's view, Dr Litchfield has suggested that we need to make further changes but that these reflect our strategy of continuous improvement rather than radical overhaul."

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