Peter Aldous calls for reform of work capability assessments, particularly in respect of mental illness

13th December 2017

Peter Aldous calls for reform of work capability assessments, particularly in respect of mental illness and calls on the Government to fully engage with charities and support groups in the mental health sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate.

During my time in this place, listening to constituents and supporting them with their work capability and PIP assessments has been part of my constituency casework. In recent months, the number of cases handled by my constituency staff has increased, which suggests that the system is not working as well as it should and needs reviewing. The problems generally relate to the challenges that people with mental health conditions or fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s face when they are given assessments, the anguish they go through and the fact that the assessments often do not reach the right decisions. The conclusion of Rethink Mental Illness’s report states:

“The current assessment system…discriminates against people with mental illnesses”.

After the 2014 judicial review decision, I am inclined to agree.

I shall briefly outline three cases with which I have been involved. Two relate to PIP rather than work capability assessments, but I believe that there are clear parallels to be drawn. All three relate to constituents whom I or my staff have known for some time. Previously, they had no problem in obtaining the support that they needed and it is only in recent months that they have experienced problems that have caused them and their families a lot of distress and worry.

The first case involves a constituent who took a supporting letter from her doctor to her assessment, which confirmed that she suffered from a long-standing mental health disorder and concluded that she would find it difficult to cope with any work commitment at the current time. The doctor added that her case should be reviewed in six months’ time.

In reviewing the assessor’s decision, the Department for Work and Pensions decision maker referred to the doctor’s letter but commented that

“at the time of your assessment, your mood did not appear to be low”.

The remainder of the review concentrated on physical issues and included comments such as:

“You appeared to be of average build and well-nourished…You said that you did not need prompting to dress or undress”.

The decision maker concluded that, because my constituent could plan a route of journey unaided, she was able to cope with anxiety. To my mind, the case demonstrates that currently assessors do not have the necessary training to assess accurately people’s mental wellbeing, and that the assessment form does not properly take account of mental conditions as well as physical conditions, and needs to be reviewed.

The second case involves a man who, along with his family, I have known personally for some time. He faces a variety of challenges, including a heart condition, kidney problems, diabetes and hypoglycaemia, as well as mental health challenges. Again, his doctor wrote a letter expressing the professional opinion that he was unfit for work at the current time. While my constituent’s assessment was going on, first, his mother was in hospital to be treated for cancer and then, very sadly, his father died. When he went for his assessment, he collapsed and was admitted to hospital. When such an awful chain of events unfolds, there should be an in-built mechanism in the work capability assessment process so that reviews are put on hold and suspended.

The third case involves a constituent of mine whom I first met some years ago. At that time, she was clearly not fit for work and was duly placed in the support group of employment and support allowance. Her case was reviewed this summer. Her condition has not improved at all in the time I have known her, yet the initial outcome of that assessment was that she should be placed in the work-related activity group. The first mandatory reconsideration upheld that decision. There was then a second mandatory reconsideration and the decision was revised. During this time, my constituent suffered a great deal of worry and distress, and was utterly perplexed as to why this was happening to her.

I have other cases that reveal similar concerns and lead me to conclude that the work capability assessment process needs to be overhauled. I suggest that this could be done in three ways. First, the Government should fully engage with charities and support groups in the sector. Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have interesting proposals that should be considered, while organisations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Parkinson’s UK can provide feedback regarding fluctuating conditions.

Secondly, Parliament has a key role to play in making changes to the assessment. The Work and Pensions Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry and its findings should be considered very carefully.

Thirdly and finally, in future the system needs to be subject to its own form of continuing professional development. Reviews such as those carried out in the past by Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield should not take place periodically—they should be an ongoing part of the process.

We need work capability assessments, but in their current form they are causing a lot of turmoil in people’s lives and need to be reformed.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

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