Tuesday, 26 July 2011

ACT NOW response to DWP Select Committee Sixth Report into the WCA.

Work and Pensions Committee - Sixth Report

The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - our response:

ACT NOW (Autism Campaigners Together) welcomes the report that was published today by the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee. The committee have stated in their report that "It is widely accepted that the WCA was flawed, in the form in which it was introduced in 2008 for new ESA claimants." ACT NOW believes that WCA is not fit for purpose for adults with autism and does not allow for the complex and specific needs that adults with autism have.

ACT NOW has been campaigning for advocates for every adult who finds themselves in a benefit situation since October 2010. Dame Anne Begg (Chair of the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee) supports our national campaign for advocates.

Today’s report highlighted the need for clear and precise communication, however it failed to acknowledge that effective communication is essential for adults with autism if they are not to be discriminated against during the WCA process.

"The Government needs to develop its communications strategy for the IB reassessment in a way which ensures clarity and minimises anxiety. Providing claimants with the right level of information at the time that is appropriate for each individual forms an important part of this, bearing in mind that the reassessment process as a whole will last three years. It also requires the Government to be clearer about what the word "support" means in the context of Employment and Support Allowance. Currently it is used to describe employment support on the one hand and financial support through benefits for those who cannot work on the other. These two different meanings in the context of one benefit can be very confusing."

It is vitally important that from the first point of contact effective communication takes place. The process as it is now is causing considerable distress and anxiety to adults with autism and their families.

ACT NOW maintain that adults with autism need to be given an automatic offer, on the basis of their autism diagnosis, of access to an advocate, supporter or “communication assistant” to enable them to communicate effectively. If assistive technology is required then this must be provided before any interview or assessment takes place. It takes highly specialised people to be able to communicate effectively with adults with autism; this includes adults who have a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome or High Functioning Autism whose verbal abilities often mask the extent of their communication impairment.

The committee report continues to stress the importance of effective communication:

"We believe that the language currently used to describe the outcome of the WCA is a barrier to the Government's objectives for the reassessment being properly communicated. The idea that a claimant has "failed" the assessment if they are found fully capable of work risks negating the positive messages which the Government is trying to convey. It needs to be addressed across the board and to include all communications between claimants and DWP staff, especially Jobcentre Plus staff who tell claimants the outcome of the process, and Atos Healthcare employees who may explain the process to claimants. We also believe that the communications need to explain clearly and at every stage of the process that, where someone is found not fit for work, they will be eligible to receive ESA at the support rate."

It is highly unlikely that Jobcentre Plus staff and Atos Healthcare employees will be suitably and specifically trained to explain clearly every stage of the process to claimants with autism. Lack of suitable and in-depth autism specific training is an area of great concern to ACT NOW.

We are delighted that the committee highlighted the way in which some sections of the media is portraying people with disabilities as work shy and scroungers. This portrayal is impacting negatively on some adults with autism.

"The committee criticises some sections of the media for the way they have reported the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants, particularly the use of terms such as "work shy" and "scrounger". It says that portraying the reassessment as some sort of scheme to "weed out benefit cheats" shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government's objectives."

 The report also discusses accessibility:

"It is unacceptable that disabled people should be called to attend an assessment at a centre which is inappropriately located, inaccessible to them or where reasonable adjustments cannot be made to accommodate special requirements arising from their health condition. We note DWP's assurance that Atos Healthcare is "moving rapidly toward" a situation where this is no longer the case. We request that, in response to this Report, the Government sets out progress towards this aim. This should include options for the relocation of assessment centres where necessary, increasing disabled access, and improvements to the mechanisms for ensuring a claimant's needs are known to Atos Healthcare in advance of the WCA."

ACT NOW welcomes this recommendation (and believe this issue should have already been resolved), we are pleased that the committee recognised the accessibility needs of disabled adults and that it is unacceptable that disabled people should attend assessment centres which are inappropriately located, inaccessible to them or where reasonable adjustments can not be made to accommodate their special needs. However, it should be noted that 'accessibility' is not purely about mobility issues, often adults with autism have complex sensory needs and anxiety.

Sensory issues are now well recognised and accepted as being very much a part of autism and being assessed for suitability to work should not be taking place in environments that adults with autism find disabling. Waiting for a long period in a stressful environment whilst waiting for an 'interview' an autistic adult is dreading will increase the likelihood of poor communication and poor understanding of their status. An advocate in this situation is essential, not only to ensure effective communication and sharing of information about the claimants abilities but also to ensure the adult with autism is able to cope sufficiently throughout the experience and beyond.

We know the WCA is causing high levels of anxiety before, during and after the assessment itself to those with autism and their carers.

In conclusion we don't believe the Select Committee has gone far enough, we remain committed to the view that:
  • The process of communicating with adults with autism is seriously flawed and no reasonable adjustments are being made to enable adults with autism to communicate effectively throughout the process.    
  • The literature provided by Jobcentre Plus for adults with additional support and communication needs does not include anyone who has a diagnosis of autism.
  • The assessment process is having a negative and lasting impact on the emotional wellbeing of adults with autism and their carers.
  • Adults with autism require support from the first point of contact to enable them to communicate effectively.
  • Very little regard appears to have been paid to Section 20 of the Equalities Act.
  • Correct and appropriate transitional support must be offered to any adult who is deemed to be either fit to work or who is placed in the Work Related Activity Group.
  • The type of training and the material used to make assessors aware of autism is a major cause for concern as are the LiMA descriptors.
The roll-out/continuation of these assessments should cease until Local Authorities and Health Authorities have had the time to appoint lead professionals and establish the groups that have been suggested within the Autism Strategy.

There are currently only *15% of adults with autism in full time employment as opposed to 48% of adults with other disabilities. This means that even within the disabled community adults with autism are disadvantaged. Forcing vulnerable adults with autism into work, many of whom have been failed throughout their lives by the system, is not only immoral but cruel.

*DfH Autism External Reference Group

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