Tag Archives: consultations

Hoban Meeting Update

So, yesterday, as most of you will know by now, representatives from Spartacus finally got to meet with Mark Hoban to discuss Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments after almost a year of trying.

Other online groups representing sick and disabled people had felt very strongly before the meeting that it should be made explicitly clear that WCAs should be scrapped. They are unfit for purpose and no amount of tinkering with descriptors or processes will change that.

We agreed, but felt that for that approach to be credible, there had to be alternative suggestions in place. Happily, in just 24 hours, all of the online groups representing sick and disabled people were able to agree to this solution in time, meaning that we could go into the meeting with the whole weight of the online campaigning community behind us.

We agreed that we would raise the issues people had agreed in extensive consultations on my blog to be the most important and “listen” to what the minister said on these issues, suggesting things that could at least make the process safer in the meantime until we were able to put together an alternative proposal.

With this in mind, here is a summary of the issues we raised and Mr Hoban’s responses. We feel that the meeting was remarkably productive in this sense.

“Before any further discussions took place, Sam explained that there was widespread support for abolishing WCAs. The system causes stress, fear and anxiety, it is not trusted and we doubt that any amount of “reform” would now be able to change that.

Sue opened the meeting by saying that we hoped we could break down the oppositional, partisan and confrontational stance that has often blighted discussions over ESA. She asked for genuine engagement. She pointed out that we had only ever tried to present helpful, evidence based research, aimed at showing how WCAs affect real people. She suggested that we all had experts and networks that could be valuable in re-designing a new system.

Mr Hoban appeared to listen carefully. He and three civil servants all took notes during the meeting. They did seem to genuinely want to discuss issues openly with us. We’re delighted to say that the meeting had none of the frustrating stonewalling or fudging of some parliamentary debates.

45 minutes passed in the blink of an eye and sadly, though we did ask the questions, there was no time to pin down answers on where things stand on mental health assessments/champions and the decision to divide physical and cognitive conditions when it comes to scoring points during an assessment. However, the Chief Medical Officer gave us his card at the end of the meeting and we agreed to chase up or define any issues that we weren’t clear on, so this will be an opportunity to clarify.

Mr Hoban appeared to particularly agree on gathering medical evidence earlier in ALL claims. Civil servants confirmed that an ESA113 was only sent to GPs in limited circumstances. Mr Hoban agreed that medical evidence was crucial at the earliest stage and accepted that sending an ESA113 in ALL cases as soon as the claim is received might be a solution. They accepted that GPs don’t always return this evidence and agreed to do more to make sure that they do. 

Sue suggested that explaining and suggesting the use of “Reliably Repeatedly and Safely” on the ESA50 form more often would be very helpful and Mr Hoban appeared to agree that this would be a helpful change. He particularly agreed that there is a need for more guidance to help people complete their forms in a way that would ensure they give the information needed to make decisions. He told a story of one of his own constituents who had filled in the form particularly badly. He said he thought he could have done a better job himself after just 5 minutes with the constituent and that it was clear much more guidance could be included to help with the process. They committed to looking again at what could be done with some urgency. 

We asked about universal audio recording of assessments and urged that this was the only way to truly know that assessments had been conducted fairly and accurately. Mr Hoban was not entirely convinced that this was the case and cited examples of HMRC losing audio files, which had created even more suspicion. He didn’t rule it out however, and did say that letters would be amended to say that the option was available to all claimants.

We asked about the Evidence Based Review (EBR) and trials of new descriptors for Mental Health and Fluctuating conditions. It was clear from the civil servants that this was taking longer than they had originally envisioned. It had proved harder than anticipated to develop robust descriptors that claimants could
be compared against and which could be tested; some of the original submissions had been too vague to be of practical use. They did agree that so far it is clear that lessons can be learned from this alternative assessment. Sue asked what would happen if the new descriptors were more generous to claimants and would cost more to implement. Would they say it was just too expensive or would the Treasury veto any changes? Mr Hoban confirmed that they would do what was right. There was no financial limit on how generous a new set of descriptors might be and these will be based on evidence not cost. He cited examples of more people going into the Support Group and how that had cost over a billion pounds extra in the first year, but that it had been accepted financially. 

Mr Hoban was particularly concerned by how long it was taking to assess people. He said that he was concerned about what is right even when improvements are difficult to implement and is keen to learn what works and doesn’t work so that the process can be improved. He wants to see a test that is robust, is the right test and has credibility. If changes are identified that would improve the system, then the DWP accepts that. He said that the EBR is a good example of that, as it has proved harder to run than
originally anticipated but the DWP will use the evidence from the EBR to improve ESA. There are no financial limits from the Treasury, and no consideration of cost will be used to decide which descriptors are the best to use.

Sue mentioned concern about targets. Mr Hoban said DWP set no targets. He said they are only concerned about quality. If an assessor was an outlier (ie putting more claimants into the Support Group or WRAG than colleagues) then it is not that the assessor is an “outlier” that matters but that a need to check his or her assessments are right was all that mattered; if the assessments were correct then it doesn’t matter that the assessor was an outlier. Mr Hoban was very clear that targets are the wrong thing, and that they have no place in a credible system. We suggested that Atos are using “norms” either way, even if not part of DWP guidance and it might be worth re-iterating with Atos that this shouldn’t be the case. 

Sam mentioned concern that assessors are saying they are told to presume zero points and award points grudgingly. We want to see an inquisitorial approach, not adversarial. Sue said that the balance of comments from claimants is that the HCPs are trying to trip people up. but maybe all that is needed is to remind Atos that their role is not to be denying people points or benefits.

Mr Hoban agreed with this and said that this is what DWP guidance to HCPs recommends; the HCPs are to gather the evidence as it is. Sue pointed out that whilst this is indeed the written DWP guidance, anecdotal evidence from HCPs suggests that this is not the case during in-house training. Again, taking this issue up with Atos may be helpful. Mr Hoban appeared to agree to this. Mr Hoban mentioned that WCA is just one part of the information that decision makers use; this is why Decision Makers do increasingly disagree with HCPs based on other evidence although we don’t know what the ‘right’ number would be given that high levels of disagreement would also be concerning. 
Sue said how pleased we were to discover that such a high proportion of claims were successful based on paper assessments alone, with no need for a stressful and costly WCA. She suggested this should be even more widespread and almost certainly could be if more GPs returned evidence in time. Mr Hoban appeared to agree that this was the best way of conducting assessments where possible. 
On Mandatory Reconsideration, leaving people without income we pushed very hard, coming back at Mr Hoban several times to try to get some kind of compromise. We argued that it isn’t consistent to give claimants 4 weeks to get evidence in when the DWP has as long as they want for reconsideration. Mr
Hoban indicated some agreement and agreed to review this 6 months
He said they need to see how it works in practice. We argued that in the meantime people are going without money, and would it not be better to give them this money during those first 6 months, and then review it. However Mr Hoban felt that as it was appropriate for these people to sign on for JSA, then there is no poverty issue. Sue pointed out that many would not be able to do that – herself included as her husband works. They would simply lose nearly £500 a month while they waited indefinitely. 
Stef pointed out concerns over the appropriateness of Jobcentre Plus conditionality agreements, and the
concerns over the high percentage of successful appeals that were not borderline but instead had been severely under-awarded points initially when they should have very easily got over the 15 points mark. Sue pointed out that a very high % (16%) of Fit for Work decisions are inaccurate and that few disagreed that the system is flawed as it stands. 
Unfortunately, Mr Hoban still insisted that these people had been found fit for work and it was reasonable to expect them to make other arrangements, time was running out and we had to leave the issue. 
We devoted the final part of the meeting to arguing very robustly that Mr Hoban consider an alternative to WCAs that would be developed by all online groups in unity. We requested a follow-up meeting to present this alternative to ESA/WCA designed by the online disabled community. Mr Hoban agreed that he is very willing to listen to constructive and fully-worked out proposals. He was concerned that given the difficulties that large charities experienced in designing workable descriptors, that we need to be aware of the challenge we have set ourselves. He did however say that if someone has an alterative that works, that is fully worked out and includes an indication of why it would be effective, then that alternative should be presented. Michael Meacher pushed him on a follow up meeting. Mr Hoban concluded that if an alternative could be put together, they are always willing – including this meeting – to listen to ideas that are constructive.”

So, we did our very best for you all. We felt quite pleased that the meeting had been so constructive and we had managed to cover so much in the short time available. If nothing else, some of the clarifications make it easier to know where things stand and what changes the government are considering in the short term to make the system safer and fairer. 
Everyone now has the chance to design a better system that is robust and which works and the knowledge that the minister will at least consider our approach. 

Result of WCA consultations

After over 700 comments and years of passionate campaigning, this post will outline the issues I and other Spartacii intend to discuss with the Minister, Mark Hoban on Tuesday. Thank you so much. 700 comments is a credible consultation with a real mandate. There has been some discussion over whether this meeting should take place at all. However, after scouring social media last night, I saw much more support for engagement than refusing to engage. 
Many, many people go their own way in campaigning. Quietly, and secretly behind the scenes. They fear exactly the kind of backlash I’ve had this week. These meetings are happening day in and day out. You just don’t know about them. People don’t publicise them, they don’t ask what you think and they don’t involve you in the process. Spartacus will never do that. It will always be YOUR voice. Paid by no-one, beholden to no-one, influenced by no-one but you. 
This list will almost certainly cause controversy too. We have 45 minutes. There is no human way we can mention all of the vital things that are wrong with ESA and WCAs and why they need to change. It’s impossible. Every time I wrote the list, someone reminded me of something else. 
We have ALL campaigned on these issues. We ALL want them changed and we ALL agree they would make WCAs less harmful. The minister already knows all about them, MPs, journalists and campaigners have explained repeatedly. There is absolutely no reason why he should listen to Spartacus any more than he listens to anyone else. But that’s no reason not to try. 
Spartacus works for political change. We always have. From working with the Lib Dems to change their policy (incidentally, we persuaded them to vote to ABOLISH WCAs. That became Lib Dem policy) to fighting for amendments to the welfare reform bill. From lobbying parliament to compiling detailed reports and taking the government to court over PIP, they ALL attempt political change. 
It’s inevitable that occasionally, we won’t all agree. That’s fine. We don’t have to. But we do have to respect the right of anyone to campaign in any way they choose. It’s called democracy. 
So, here are the issues we’ll take forward based on YOUR recommendations and suggestions and the things that have upset you the most over the years. In some ways, they may not all be the most important (though I believe they are) but they are often issues the government have pledged to change already but have been slow to do so. Some are relatively easy for the government to implement, meaning there can be no true objection to them. Most are relatively low cost as we all know this government will refuse to spend a penny as an excuse to resist change. 
But they are all vital and if they were all implemented fully as government often pledged to do, the WCA would be a much safer and less terrifying experience. If that’s not worth fighting for, I’m afraid I fail utterly to see why. 

Please try to be a little gentle over things we may not have included.

Mandatory Reconsideration – Assessment phase payments MUST continue through MR. DWP MUST set a time limit. Sheila Gilmore has laid a lot of the groundwork for us on this so we shouldn’t need to go into as much detail. the time period for submitting a WCA MUST be set back to 6 weeks. 4 weeks is not enough to collect all the evidence we need.

-Accessible Centres – No more excuses. New centres MUST replace the 29 inaccessible centres.

-Set Min Limits on Re-assessment – 3,6 and 9 month reassessment periods are ludicrous and only slow the system down. For us AND for government.

-Mental Health Champions – In EVERY centre. They promised this but there are still only 60 – less than half of all centres, It has to happen now. Why can’t it/hasn’t it so far & what needs to be done to achieve it?

-Division Cognitive and Physical point scoring as per ESASOS A person MUST be able to score under both physical AND cognitive descriptors again. Separating them is totally unworkable.

-Recording Assessments – Every assessment, every time, just like interviews, call centres etc. This would show a real commitment to transparency and change. Again, they’ve promised, no more excuses.

-EBR (Evidence Based Review) – New descriptors NOW. 5 years is too long, Too many people have suffered. We were due an update on this months ago. Not one more person should go through a test using descriptors that are biased against them. In this we will also discuss the MHRN case.

GPs and medical evidence – The minister has maintained from the start that the more medical evidence a claimant has, the more accurate the outcomes. He MUST ensure that GPs are able to provide this evidence and not allowed to refuse. Assessors MUST take all evidence fully into account, looking at GPs/Consultants evidence and claim forms first, before considering a WCA

So, that’s eight things. There are 800 more. As it is, we will have less than 5 minutes per issue. I really hope that you think this is a good list or at least as good as it can be in the circumstances. I hope you think it represents what you told us faithfully. If all of these changes were implemented in good faith, many thousands fewer would suffer. That has to be a goal worth fighting for.

If you could say just one thing to Mark Hoban…..

Finally, after months of petitioning by Michael Meacher and myself, after a debate in parliament specifically on meeting “Spartacus”, next week (10th September) myself and two other “Spartacii” who have been heavily involved in all ESA research will be meeting with the DWP Minister Mark Hoban.

We have 45 minutes – a generous time slot in parliamentary terms, but the merest blink of an eye with so much to put right.

Before I go any further, and indeed before I discuss anything with Mr Hoban, I want to make it perfectly clear that I believe WCAs and indeed the entire ESA system is flawed and should be scrapped. This has always been my position and it remains my position today.

For all of this week, DPAC are running a week of direct action, “Reclaiming our Futures” http://t.co/6OzxELYePK I would strongly urge you all to take part if at all possible. This is the way we will ultimately achieve real change.

However, I have a chance to explain to the minister how some of the worst elements of ESA and WCAs affect us and to petition for them to be changed. I will make my position on abolishing WCAs clear, but it would be naive to believe that we will come away from a 45 minute meeting having achieved that ultimate goal.

I DO believe however, that some elements of WCAs are intolerable and I already have an idea from previous consultations with you all what those things might be. However, before next week, I wanted to give you all one last chance to feed into this important opportunity.

If you were there with us and could say just one thing to Mr Hoban, change just one thing that might make the WCA process less harmful, what would it be? While DPAC, Black Triangle and other groups continue their excellent work to scrap the tests, what might make the process safer and less destructive in the meantime? 

I’m a pragmatist. If we can achieve any change for the better, I believe it is worthwhile. If we can save just one person from taking their own life, or falling into starvation or despair, I believe it is worth trying. If we achieve nothing at all, we will be able to say that we tried. And tried. And tried. That we engaged with democracy whenever the chance arose and did all we could to make ESA safer.

I really hope that as many of you as possible leave comments below and share this post on Twitter, Facebook or other networks you use. If I go alone, I am one voice. If it is just the three of us attending, we whisper. If you all come with us, we shout and have the credibility to demand real change.