Written evidence submitted by Elina Rigler |
I have lived with a chronic illness for almost 20
years and am currently receiving Incapacity Benefit. Having participated
in programmes such as Pathways to Work on a voluntary basis, I
possess first-hand experience of the barriers to work faced by
those with limiting long-term illness.
I do not believe that the system is working properly
in its current form, and I am concerned that the migration of
IB claimants onto ESA has begun before all the necessary changes
to the Work Capability Assessment have been implemented.
My more general concern is that the IB reform is
based on questionable assumptions about illness and employment,
and is therefore likely to fail, causing a good deal of suffering
to claimants. Specifically, the system does not take account of
the real-world impact of chronic illness on an individual's ability
to work or chances of finding work.
2. THE TIME-SCALE
Like hundreds of thousands of other IB claimants,
I am extremely apprehensive about the impending ESA reassessment.
I suffer from the kind of chronic, fluctuating illness that is
insufficiently captured by the WCA descriptors, and my worry is
that I will be assessed by a poorly trained HCP with little understanding
of my health condition.
The Government is aware that there are serious problems
with the WCA; for instance, the Harrington review acknowledged
that the WCA doesn't adequately measure the full impact of chronic,
fluctuating conditions on the individual's capability for work.
Professor Harrington has now set up a working group to review
the WCA in relation to conditions such as ME/CFS, MS, arthritis
and Parkinson's disease.1
The trouble is that the DWP is pressing ahead with
the migration from IB to ESA while ignoring many of the well-known
problems with the WCA and only gradually implementing Harrington's
recommendations for improvements. Worse still, a new version of
the test has just come into force that is even less capable than
the old one of measuring the real impact of chronic illness and
will make it even harder for claimants to qualify for ESA.
It is unfair and irresponsible to start reassessing
IB claimants using a test that everyone knows is seriously flawed.
This is likely to lead to even more appeals and cause more hardship
and anxiety to claimants. Moreover, those who are reassessed first,
before all the recommendations have been acted on, will be placed
at a distinct disadvantage.
3. REALITY V
The IB reform is presented as a progressive measure
empowering sick and disabled people to work. The problem is that
the reform is not grounded in reality, but is based on the following
highly dubious assumptions:
impact of complex medical conditions can be assessed by a tick-box
ability to carry out simple tasks indicates the ability to hold
down a job in the real world;
all illnesses are transient or can be easily managed;
approach is needed to get sick and disabled people off benefits;
are willing to take on those with special employment needs, including
long-term IB claimants, and
and disabled people are able to compete with millions of able-bodied
unemployed people at a time of rising unemployment.
I believe that many of the serious problems with
the ESA/WCA stem from this lack of realism and that the system
will continue to malfunction until the Government starts addressing
these more fundamental issues.
3.1 Improving the Work Capability Assessment
and the decision-making process
Improving the WCA requires much more than tinkering
with the descriptors. Atos assessors and DWP decision makers should
not rely too much on the crude and rigid point-scoring system,
but need to take into account all medical evidence. They should
also use their common sense when assessing someone's work capability;
specifically, they should ask the question: does this person have
any realistic prospect of finding and sustaining work, given the
nature of their impairment?
The DWP is keen to emphasise that the WCA aims to
identify accurately what people can do, rather than write people
off due to their impairment.2 These are noble sentiments
and we should indeed focus on people's abilities, and not on their
disabilities. But there is a difference between what should be
happening in an ideal world and what actually is happening. Unfortunately,
we live in the kind of world where people with certain types of
impairments are not employable in the mainstream job market; in
particular, employers are generally not willing or able to accommodate
the needs of those suffering from chronic, fluctuating illnesses.
Employers take it for granted that you are able to
carry out "activities of daily living", and they are
not interested in your "good" days. What they want to
know is whether you are able to sustain, regularly and reliably,
the kind of high level of mental and physical activity required
for even part-time work. This is what the test should assess,
and not your ability to walk short distances, raise your arms
or press a button.
Too many sick and disabled people will continue to
be wrongly declared fit for work until the assessment process
starts taking into account how an individual's illness or disability
affects their capability for work in the real world.
3.2 The outcome of the migration process
3.2.1 For those moved to Jobseeker's Allowance
The Government has frequently claimed that the new
system is stopping people being "trapped on benefits".
However, there is no evidence that those failing the WCA are moving
into work; in fact, they are more likely to be languishing on
JSA or to have dropped out of the system altogether.
Indeed, according to the report published by the
Institute for Employment Studies, only 13% of those placed in
the fit for work group had found jobs by the time they were interviewed
at least six months later, and nearly 60% were neither working
nor looking for work (probably because they were unfit for work).3
It is particularly cruel to push long-term IB claimants
onto JSA and expect them to compete with millions of healthy people
in an increasingly cut-throat job market. It is a well-known fact
that employers are not willing to take on sick and disabled people;
for instance, a recent study suggests that only 8% of employers
would consider employing former IB recipients.4
Those forced onto JSA will lose up to 30% of their
income. Although they have been deemed fit for work, most have
significant health problems. They may find it hard to comply with
the tough JSA regime and risk being sanctioned and losing even
more benefit. Moreover, claimants who are not entitled to means-tested
benefits can lose 100% of their independent income after six months.
It is not clear to me why being "abandoned"
on IB is regarded as a bad thing, but it is acceptable to abandon
sick and disabled claimants on JSA at a significantly reduced
income, or to simply abandon them, without any benefits.
3.2.2 For those placed in the Work Related Activity
Despite their severe health problems, claimants in
the WRAG are forced to undertake work-related activities under
threat of financial sanctions. It is a good idea to offer sick
and disabled people a chance to discuss work opportunities with
a personal advisor, but threatening them with sanctions is not
only cruel, but also counterproductive. It is likely to cause
them stress and anxiety, thereby aggravating their condition and
delaying their recovery.
It should be remembered that many people in this
group are suffering from long-term or life-long conditions. The
ESA regime seems to be predicated on the assumption that even
those with chronic or degenerative conditions, who may have been
ill for decades, will miraculously recover within a short period
of time and be able to find work.
Because of this kind of magical thinking, even those
in the Support Group are liable to be subjected to frequent and
unnecessary reassessments. Some chronically ill claimants are
wrongly found fit for work and have to undergo the lengthy and
stressful appeals process. They may eventually win their appeal,
but then, only a few months later, may be called in for another
assessment and forced to go through whole process again.
Time-limiting contributory ESA to one year means
that many people will lose 100% of their benefits and will in
effect be punished for being chronically ill and unable to work,
or unable to find appropriate work. This is mainly a cost-cutting
measure, but is also justified by the totally unrealistic assumption
that most claimants will be ready to return to work within a year
and by the dubious idea that throwing seriously ill people off
benefits will "incentivise" them to work.
3.3 ESA is punitive
There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's
stance. On the one hand, they claim that ESA has been introduced
because they know that those of us with health conditions and
disabilities want to work; on the other hand, we are treated as
malingerers or children who can't be trusted to engage in work-related
activities without coercion, threats and financial sanctions.
If the Government truly believed that most of us
are responsible adults who are keen to work, they wouldn't impose
on us such a punitive regime and such a draconian eligibility
test. If they really wanted to support us into paid employment,
rather than simply move us off benefits, they would listen to
our views and take note of our experiences.
Sick and disabled people do want to work and they
don't generally object to welfare-to-work programmes. But such
programmes need to offer non-coercive support and a safe place
for those with health problems to explore the possibility of doing
some paid work. Above all, claimants should not be penalised financially
if they are too ill to work or, through no fault of their own,
cannot find suitable employment.
3.4 Supply vs. demand side of labour
Contrary to the DWP rhetoric, it is not the current
benefit system that is stopping people like me from working, but
the nature of our impairment and the lack of suitable employment
opportunities. The new benefit regime is unlikely to improve our
situation; in fact, I fear that under ESA most of us will be significantly
worse off financially, under permanent pressure, hence in poorer
health and even further away from work than before.
Like tens of thousands of other chronically ill people,
I have skills and qualifications, I am highly motivated, and don't
need financial incentives to work. Unfortunately, my illness severely
restricts the kind of work I can do: because of the variability
of my condition, I am unable to work regular hours and do not,
therefore, fit into the mainstream job market. I might be able
to do some very part-time work if I were allowed to choose when,
where and how to work. Having taken part in the Pathways to Work
and other back-to-work programmes as a volunteer, I know that
jobs offering such a high degree of flexibility are virtually
impossible to come by. My personal advisors had no idea how to
help me: they could offer me job-searching tips, but they couldn't
wave a magic wand and create jobs tailored to my needs.
Indeed, social scientists and disability activists
have been warning all along that the IB reform is unlikely to
succeed as it focuses almost exclusively on individuals' work-readiness
and fails to take into account the myriad social and environmental
barriers to work that sick and disabled people face even in boom
But Government policies continue to ignore the fact
that neither sticks nor carrots can get people like me into work
if there are no jobs we can apply for and if employers cannot
be persuaded to hire those with special employment needs. Of course,
it is much easier to deal with an individual's (supposed) deficiencies
than to tackle socio-structural barriers, make radical changes
to working practices, or influence employers' attitudes, but social
policy should be based on reality and not on wishful thinking.
I find it worrying that the Government is planning
to move hundreds of thousands of people off disability benefits,
despite being fully aware that previous welfare-to-work programmes
have only been able to help a small minority of claimants find
work.5 They don't seem to care that most former IB
claimants are likely to either become long-term unemployed or
drop out of the system, falling into the chasm between welfare
No one would object to ESA if it were capable of
achieving its stated aims. There is, however, no evidence that
the system is supporting people into work or lifting them out
of poverty. It is much more likely to push them further into poverty,
causing them a good deal of stress and affecting their mental
and physical health.6
1 ESA: Changes
to the WCA descriptors, Tony Britton,
ME Association, February 2011. http://www.meassociation.org.uk/?p=4723
response to Professor Malcolm Harrington's independent review
of the Work Capability Assessment, November 2010.
3 ESA: Findings
from a face to face survey of customers, Barnes, H, Sissons
P, Stevens H. Research Report 707, DWP, November 2010.
"ill-prepared" for Incapacity benefit, Joe Williams,
HR Magazine, December 2010.
5 Support to
incapacity benefit claimants through Pathways to Work, Public
Accounts Committee - First Report, September 2010.
Disabled People, Disability Benefits Consortium, March 2011.