Lib Dems to urge changes to ‘stressful’ benefit tests

Controversial tests for people claiming sickness benefits should be changed to make them “less stressful” – Lib Dem activists will urge the party.

Party members will debate calls for changes to the employment support allowance (ESA) tests next month.

They were introduced in 2008 and are being rolled out across all ESA and incapacity benefit claimants.

The government says the “work capability assessment” helps identify people who have the potential to work.

The Lib Dems have published a list of topics that will be debated at their annual party conference, being held in Birmingham in September.

Party members will call for a reduction in the number of cases overturned on appeal, to continue to reform the tests and to make them more accurate – particularly for those whose symptoms fluctuate and to make assessments “less stressful”.

It also says all those claimants who appeal against the result of the assessments should get access to representation.

Appeals rate

The work capability assessment tests were introduced under the previous Labour government but are being extended to include all 2.6m existing claimants of incapacity benefit and employment support allowance.

The tests determine whether applicants are entitled to the highest rate of ESA – for those deemed unable to work at all due to sickness or disability – or are considered “fit for work”, in which case they are put on Jobseeker’s Allowance instead.

It can also place applicants into a “work-related activity group”, where they will be expected to take steps to prepare themselves for work in the medium to long term.

Changes have already been made after the independent Harrington review last year, which concluded the tests were not working as well as they should and needed to be made fairer and more effective.

The report noted the “high rate of appeals” against findings, and said that cases overturned by “first tier” appeals between October 2008 and August 2009 were “consistently around 40%”.

The tests are conducted by the DWP’s independent medical adviser, Atos Healthcare, at more than 140 medical examination centres across the country.

The government argues that in the past people have been “abandoned” to a life on benefits and say the tests are needed to identify those who could return to work.

It published figures last month compiled after 1.3m tests, carried out over two years, in which 39% of claimants were deemed fit for work and moved onto jobseeker’s allowance instead.

The list of issues for debate at the Lib Dem party conference also includes a call for a government-backed inquiry into the decriminalisation of drugs.

Party members will also debate a call for more help to be given children from poorer families through an “education credit” that would include free transport for under-18s, a free breakfast and a midday meal.

And some activists want changes to the rules on when part time students in England have to repay their tuition fees – a conference motion says that under the government’s proposals part-time students will have to start repaying their student debt, before they have finished studying.

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