Benefits-application process criticised for inability to fairly handle vulnerable applicants


The Government has introduced new procedures aimed at speeding up application processes for benefits. Amongst these is the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which is designed to determine whether an applicant should receive sickness and disability benefits. However, the WCA has come under stark criticism for not being capable of fairly assessing individuals who are suffering from mental health conditions. Now, professional bodies are reacting and judicial proceedings are being brought in attempts to get the Government to scrap the WCA.

A computerised assessment

The WCA process is a quick computer-based test. It takes 20 minutes and is conducted by untrained health professionals. Nathalie Lieven QC has commented that the nature of the test makes it unsuitable to deal with applicants who suffer from mental-health issues. Lieven has highlighted that its inefficiency is witnessed by the high number of successful appeals of unsuccessful initial applications, which currently stands at 40%.

Lieven represents one of two applicants who have initiated judicial proceedings against the WCA in the High Court. It is expected that Mr Justice Edwards-Stuartin will on Friday decide whether to grant judicial review of the WCA.

System not apt for dealing with vulnerable individuals

Lieven has stressed that the WCA is not capable of ensuring that applicants with mental-health issues disclose all necessary material for their application, such as providing additional evidence of their condition or even discussing it with the test conductor. If judicial review is granted, and the claimants' cases are successful, the system would have to change the way that it handles people with mental-health problems.

The WCA is not only criticised by private individuals; this week, at a British Medical Association (BMA) conference, health professionals called for the WCA to be abolished. BMA delegates argued that the WCA causes emotional harm to many applicants, and recommended it "be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society".

Many individuals are prevented from engaging in employment due to mental-health issues. It is important that any such condition is identified and that the individual receives all the necessary help and care, which can encourage them to enter the job market at a later stage. Whilst many physical conditions are visible, mental-health problems can be more difficult for non-professionals to identify as the affected individual may not display symptoms that are visible to the untrained eye.

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