New disability test 'is a complete mess', says expertWelfare reform expert Professor Paul Gregg says a rushed roll out of the work capability assessment will cause more anguish
Share1269 Amelia Gentleman guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 February 2011 17.51 GMT Article history
Chris Grayling, the employment minister, acknowledged the problems with the test, but insisted that reforms would go ahead. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
One of the architects of the new sickness benefit system has warned it would be a mistake to start introducing it nationwide from the end of this month because of serious ongoing problems with the medical test designed to assess whether claimants are genuinely sick or disabled.
"The test is badly malfunctioning. The current assessment is a complete mess," Professor Paul Gregg, an economist and welfare reform expert, said.
During the preliminary roll-out of the test, people with terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis and serious mental illnesses have been found fit to work.
Since early 2009, more than 240,000 cases contesting the result of the health tests have been accepted for tribunal hearings and, of the cases they hear, judges overturn about 40% of test findings.
Over the next three years, 1.5 million people claiming incapacity benefit will undergo a work capability assessment (WCA) to determine whether they are eligible for a replacement benefit, employment support allowance (ESA).
The new test is much tougher than the previous one and in pilots 30% fewer people have been found unfit for work and 70% fewer people have been found eligible for the full-rate, unconditional support benefit; in both cases claimants have been shifted to a lower benefit. The reform is expected to save the government £1bn over five years.
The system has been in place for new claimants since 2008, but will be expanded to retest existing claimants from the end of this month.
An independent review of the test in November last year found serious flaws in the way it was functioning and called for major improvements.
Although the government has promised to implement these recommendations before people begin to be retested, at a rate of 11,000 a week, some politicians, charity workers and academics think the roll-out is going ahead too fast.
Gregg, who helped design the new ESA, recommends a further trial before it is introduced nationally.
"In the first trial, the system did not work. We need to trial the new, proposed, reformed system to check and prove that it works and avoids the serious stress and misclassification of people that we have already seen, before we start implementing it on a large and vulnerable population," he said. "The test so far has caused a huge amount of anguish to the people who have gone through it. We need to have something that is working accurately before we apply it nationally.
"We shouldn't roll this out until we have something that is working."
Stephen Timms, the shadow employment secretary, is also anxious about the speed with which it is being implemented. "In principle, this is the right thing to do," he said. "My worry is that this exercise is being rushed. We know that there are some changes that need to be made to the WCA. There are risks with the roll-out. I think that the government is in a rush with the welfare reform."
Chris Grayling, the employment minister, acknowledged that there had been problems with the test, but said reforms were being introduced and would be in place in time. "I see this as a constant process of refinement and improvement," he said.
• The headline of this article was corrected on Wednesday 23 February 2011. It previously said Paul Gregg designed the welfare test. In fact he designed a different part of the employment support allowance.