The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Jaki Tean

I have to write in relation to the inquiry into the Work Capability Assessment.

Regarding the assessments, I think it's appalling that people who've gone through the appeals process and have had their original WCA overturned, then have to go through it all again, in a matter of weeks or months. I've heard this happens in many cases and I think this amounts to harrassment of disabled people by the DWP and I hope someone files for a Judicial Review to stop the DWP from getting away with it because I think it amounts to what is known as Wensbury Unreasonable in legal terms.

This brings me onto cutting legal aid for benefits cases. I'm totally cynical about this. There are great injustices already going on and the Government are paving the way for further injustice to prevail. It's a nasty move and this means that legal aid funded workers who help people fight their benefit cases will also disappear. The figures show that those with representation do better than those without. Many disabled people will be denied representation and so will be dealt a double injustice.

I have recently been sent an email by a disabled advisory group to state that the ESA test is to get even harder from April 2011. They cite an example in the training manual of people being able to make a cup of tea, wash or dress as being passed as fit for work. This is an outrage. My 83 year-old mother can do these things. Is she to be bullied into work as well? Relating back to the high success rate of claimants having their ESA decisions overturned on appeal, by making the ESA test even harder to pass, fewer will win on appeal (a) because of these ridiculous extra hoops disabled people are expected to jump through and (b) the cuts to legal aid for benefits cases will ensure this, so that the Government can then turn round and meet their targets, rather than meeting the needs of disabled people. In any case, I understood that Professor Harrington's report had called for a better, more sensitive ESA, that was to take account of fluctuating conditions, mental health problems, the assessment process and so on. I see little evidence of this in the new training manual. As it is the test is demeaning and degrading and doesn't look at the impact of disability as a whole but rather breaks it up into meaningless tasks, for example, if somebody can bend down and pick up a coin from the floor, regardless of the fact that a person is supposed to be able to do repeatedly and without pain, otherwise they are deemed not to be able to do it at all. But time and time again, Atos don't abide by their manual. Surely they are the ones who should be more accountable with such a high error rate? Yet they are being rewarded financially in spite of their appalling failure rate and in spite of the fact that their related company UNUM were found guilty of illegal practises in the US and ran "disabled denial factories". The WCA test has been declared unfit for purpose even by its own designer.

Yet in the new manual we have terrifying paragraphs which show little understanding of how illness and disability impacts on the lives of those who suffer—it's not a case of "if you can do this, you can therefore work"—basic living and survival is on a completely different level than being able to have the stamina and consistent good health required for work. In the DLA consultation, it was at least recognised that disabled people are "experts in their own condition" and yet here we have pseudo-science propounded in the WCA manual. Here are some examples:

(1)  "A clinician does not routinely consider the functional restrictions or disabling effects of the medical conditions that they treat. They must take into consideration that the clinician may have no specific training in assessing disabilities in their medical education, and may have considerable difficulty in giving an accurate assessment or forming an opinion in relation to the functional restrictions experienced by their patient."

"Atos Healthcare practitioners are specifically trained in the assessment of disability. By evaluating the clinical history, the physical examination and informal observations in the light of the claimant's daily activities, the medical disability analyst is able to provide an accurate and consistent assessment of the functional restrictions. This assessment is based on the HCP's medical training and expertise, and a body of established medical knowledge and opinion. The HCP is able to advise the DM on restrictions arising from the disabling condition(s)."

It is absolute nonsense and a complete arrogance for Atos to think they know more than a highly-trained GP who has studied medicine and been in practise, often for years.

(2)  "Signs which are inconsistent with purely organic pathology include":

—  (a)  "Overreaction to examination"—everybody reacts differently. Claimants may have been abused, how can such generalised statements fit all? It is ludicrous.

—  (b)  "Diffuse rather than localised tenderness"—people with fibromyalgia have sore and painful points all over their body, that's a symptom of fibromyalgia!

(3)  "It is usually only possible to observe the claimant standing for short periods of time but even these are of value in your report, eg "I observed him standing for three minutes only during my examination of his spine but he exhibited no distress and this, in conjunction with my clinical examination recorded below, would not be consistent with his stated inability to stand for less than 30 minutes. He may need to move around to ease spinal discomfort but would not need to sit down." As always, this opinion should be reinforced by typical day examples of standing ability."

Again, this is absolute nonsense. There's a world of difference between three minutes and 30 minutes, Anybody who has lower back problems knows just what a strain it puts on the back to have to stand for 30 minutes.

These are just a few examples in the manual which were were jaw-droppingly shocking. Also, there is little reference to fluctuating conditions, yet these are the very people who stand to lose the most, where fatigue, stamina and pain are the main symptoms, eg MS, ME, fibromyalgia, lupus, anxiety, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia etc. Furthermore, the assessment is completely anti-women, there's no mention of women who have abnormal periods and pain to such an extent that it affects their lives every month.

The Government also keep chanting the mantra that the welfare bill has "spiralled out of control" which again is misleading. A lot of the evidence shows this not to be the case, and any increase in spending was as a result of increased pensions and increases in Housing Benefit and JSA (as a result of the housing boom and then the world recession). ESA actually went down during the same period. Now we hear that the latest unemployed figures have hit 2.3 million, and those most likely to get a job are men over 50 working in the private sector. This isn't looking good for women, young people, and public sector workers, nor those with a disability. Furthermore, we learn that the DWP are putting pressure on Jobcentres to sanction people to meet their targets. Let's make no bones about what this means, it means people are losing their money, having nothing to live on, they're in danger of losing their homes, if not their lives and will ultimately cost the health service more in the long run. It is madness and kow-towing to the Tory press who are inciting disability hatred with their vicious and largely untrue reports against the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

The money this country spends on out-of-work benefits as a proportion to income is actually the lowest in the world, lower than the States and many third world countries, and still the Government wants to continue a campaign which is becoming dangerously near that of Nazi Germany, where the disabled were among the first to be targeted. In terms of the market-based economy, if we are not financially viable we are dispensible, and compassion goes out of the window. I am ashamed by the monetarist values of this country, where those that "can" will be catered for, and those that can't will be beaten, bullied or left to rot. The mark of a civilized society is measured by how it treats its weakest members. In the not so distance past, child abuse or rape weren't taken very seriously, now we look back on those days with horror and disbelief. One day, too, future generations will look back with disgust and abhorrence about the way we treated our disabled people and how it was allowed to happen.

I urge you to do all within your powers to stand up and be counted and speak up for all disabled people before it's too late.

April 2011

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Prepared 26 July 2011