7 January 2010

The first signs have emerged that the government is coming under pressure over the harshness of the medical tests for employment and support allowance.

In two reports issued last month, UK charities have finally begun to challenge the government  over the ‘cruel’ and ‘unacceptable’ failings of employment and support allowance (ESA).  Meanwhile, in an article entitled “Retreat on 'draconian' testing for disability benefit” published on 3 January, the Observer’s political editor Toby Helm claims that “Ministers are to change the way disabled people are assessed for benefits amid uproar over a "draconian" testing regime”.

‘Failed by the system’ is a joint report by Macmillan Cancer Support and Citizens Advice.  It looks at the way the DWP is forcing claimants with cancer – including some who are terminally ill - to attend medicals and work-focused interviews, even though many of them should be exempt from the entire process.

The report blames a combination of:

  • badly trained DWP staff
  • poor systems within Jobcentre Plus
  • a lack of understanding of cancer
  • the poor design of the work capability assessment itself

for the entirely avoidable misery being caused to people struggling with a life-threatening disease.

The report gives examples of people with only months to live who were nevertheless sent questionnaires to complete and summoned for medicals, even though they should have automatically been placed in the support group. 

Claimants about to undergo chemotherapy were also wrongly obliged to attend medicals by badly trained DWP staff.  Others claimants with cancer scored very few points when assessed under the work capability assessment and were refused ESA. One woman with cancer scored just six points and was found capable of work. Two
weeks later she began oxygen therapy for five hours a day, four days a week. After this she was due to undergo surgery before further post-operative oxygen therapy.

Mike Hobday, head of campaigns at Macmillan, said: "It's cruel and completely unacceptable that people who are terminally ill or going through gruelling treatment are being made to jump through hoops to get money they should receive automatically. The safeguards to protect cancer patients clearly aren't working, and the ESA system is riddled with problems."

‘Limited capability’ is a report by Citizens Advice on the first year of ESA administration.

Problems with the administration of ESA now make up one in every fifty enquiries made to citizens advice bureau, double the rate for equivalent problems with incapacity benefit.  Issues covered by the report include huge difficulties and expense for claimants trying to get through on the telephone and being confronted with completely inaccurate information and advice when they finally do so.  One man lost around £1,000 in benefit when he was told he did not qualify for contribution-based ESA but was not assessed for income-related ESA.

The report also highlights the enormous delays in the system and the disastrous effects these can have on vulnerable claimants.  One man ended up being taken back into a mental health unit after the stress caused by delays in his ESA claim which led to his phone being cut off and his rent going into arrears.  Another claimant with a severe mental health condition began to self-harm after long delays in the payment of his ESA.

Even letters sent out to claimants informing them that they have been found capable of work fail to explain properly the steps they need to take in order to appeal and continue to receive ESA whilst doing so.

Neither of these reports is likely, in itself, to make a great difference to the experience of most ESA claimants.  But they do represent the first organised efforts by the voluntary sector to set out the real injustices and cruelty of ESA. 

Sadly, the Observer’s claim that:

Ministers are to change the way disabled people are assessed for benefits amid uproar over a "draconian" testing regime that aims to cut the welfare bill and get more people into work.

Seems to be based more on hope than actual evidence.  The article quotes representatives from Disability Alliance and the PCS union criticising aspects of the current work capability assessment.  However, the DWP’s response is simply to express their gratitude to Disability Alliance for having helped develop the new assessment system and to say that they will be reviewing the test:

"This is a relatively new process, but we were very grateful to have organisations such as Disability Alliance involved in the consultation process and the development of the programme from the very start.

"We will be reviewing it to see where improvements and changes need to be made to ensure that it is working as it should be."

The government confirmed in November that an independent review of the work capability assessment was to begin in the new year, but have so far refused to reveal who the independent reviewer will be.

For claimants, the challenge is now to pressure every national disability charity into documenting the misery being endured by its members as a result of the harsh ESA assessment system and to ensure this evidence is fed into the review.  This applies particularly to those voluntary sector organisations that were so helpful in developing this iniquitous test in the first place.

You can download ‘Failed by the system’ from this link.

You can download ‘Limited capability’ from this link.

You can read the Observer article here.


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