How many 'fit to work' assessments are successfully overturned?

22 November 2011
  Last week a letter was published in The Guardian, which argued that ATOS sponsoring the paralympics was problematic.   ATOS Healthcare is a private company who is employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out the 'Work Capability Assessment ' (WCA), a series of tests which are intended to determine whether someone is eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The letter went on to claim that 70 per cent of the organisation's assessments are overturned on appeal, and that for this reason it was  "completely inappropriate" for ATOS to sponsor the games.

In response to this, an ATOS manager responded with a letter to the Guardian stating that "fewer than 8% of the assessments undertaken are overturned on appeal".

At the request of several of our readers we decided to take a closer look at the matter.   Analysis   The most recent information on the subject is provided by the DWP here.   Unfortunately, due to the length of time appeals take, data on the number of successful appeals only goes up to August 2010. As well as this, data is only available for those appealing against being described as 'fit to work' and does not include those who are appealing against being placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) and feel they should be in the Support Group.   The figures show that 1,176,600 people applied for ESA between October 2008 and August 2010. Of these, 181,900 went to court in an attempt to appeal the decision made when found 'fit for work', with 69,800 successfully overturning their assessments.   Therefore, out the total number of initial applications that have been made only 5.93 per cent have been taken to court and seen a 'fit for work' assessment overturned.   When we contacted ATOS they confirmed that the figure came from DWP figures, but emphasised that they were comparing the number of successful appeals with the total number of decisions. 36 per cent of applications are never completed, with no assesment made. If we exclude this category of people the total number of completed assessments that are successfully taken to court and overturned rises to 9.33 per cent.   Whilst this is higher than the figure put forward by ATOS, it is not significantly so, and is still considerably lower than the 70 per cent put forward by the first letter writer.   Perhaps the reason that several of our readers were surprised by the figure put forward by ATOS is a result of the difference when we look the success rate once these assessments are in court. Of those initially placed in the 'Fit to Work' category between October 2008 and August 2010 39 per cent felt that they had been incorrectly assessed and appealed in court. In these cases 38 per cent successfully overturned their assessment.*

This means that of the 462,100 'fit for work' assessments decided between October 2008 and August 2010 69,800 - or 15 per cent - were overturned.

The 70 per cent figure quoted in the initial letter has been previously cited by Citizens Advice Scotland, who found that in cases taken to court where a bureau represents a client 70 per cent of Fit to Work assessments are successfully overturned. We looked at this claim back in August. Conclusion 

The figures are vastly different because they are looking at different things. A figure around 8 per cent (we make it 9 per cent) can be arrived at by working out successful appeals against fit to work decisions as a percentage of all assessments.

The 70 per cent figure, if the CAB figure was the source of the claim, is the number successful appeals made when the Citizens Advice was involved as a percentage of appeals were the bureau has provided assistance.


As highlighted on our Facebook page, there more up to date figures on ESA appeal decisions.

The Ministry of Justice publishes figures going up to September 2011. They show that around 38 per cent of Employment and Support Allowance appeals go against DWP - ie the decision is overturned on appeal. The numbers also show an increase in the number of appeals being made.

But these statistics only give us a percentage of decisions overturned out of the ones which actually went to tribunal in a given period. They are not given as a proportion of all assessments made.

To get picture of what proportion of all 'fit for work' decisions are ultimately overturned  it seems we still have to rely on the slightly dated DWP figures referenced in this piece.

In the DWP bulletin the figures are grouped by the month the claim was initially started, so we can assess what proportion of claimants who began their claims in the same time period ultimately had a fit for work decision overturned. 

Though it is possible that the percentage will change when the figures are updated, these are the best numbers we could find to go on at present.

UPDATE (23/1/12)

One of our readers highlighted a potential lack of clarity in our article. As we mentioned, appeals data was only available for people in the 'fit to work' category and did not include appeals from people in either recipient group who objected to their category. This imposes significant restrictions on conclusions about the proportion of all applications that are overturned on appeal - precise data for which we do not have access to.

In addition, a potential caveat that we did not initially mention is that the successfully overturned applications in the 'fit to work' category are only those overturned following an appeal. The data from the DWP does not include 'reassessments', which can also result in an overturned application but are not recorded in the appeals statistics. Information on these procedures is available here.

We apologise for the lack of clarity in our article.

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