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

Written evidence submitted by Susan Marsh


ESA is unfit for purpose

A policy bought in by Labour based on flawed evidence has been continued under this coalition and made infinitely worse by time limiting those in the WRAG to one year. Every independent study, including the Harrington report, have found it unfit, yet the Government presses ahead with a policy which is causing real hardship and suffering.

1.  I have little confidence that any of the points I raise will be addressed. The enquiry into DLA was a total whitewash with not one single point raised taken on or accepted. Nonetheless, I will make this submission in the hope that when everything I campaign so hard to highlight turns out to be true, it will be shown that this Government had all the evidence before them yet chose repeatedly to ignore it.

2.  ESA is based on suppositions made by Mr Purnell that because the Incapacity Benefit figures rose so markedly under the Conservative government of the 80s, there must still be, 30 years later, some 1.7 million people languishing on benefits who could work. This totally ignores the advances made by medicine in that time. Thousands of people now survive conditions that would have killed them in the 80s. Surgery and medicine have improved beyond all recognition and long-term variable conditions such as cancer, bowel disease, parkinsons, alzeimhers, mental illness, kidney, heart and liver disease are now conditions that people can learn to live with. Nonetheless, treatments are often unsuccessful or carry their own side effects and as a society we simply have to accept that we will need to support many more people through long-term illness than we did in the 80s. In fact, the figures for Incapacity Benefit have remained static for 14 years. There is no great surge of claimants, no mythical millions living a life of ease on sickness benefits.

3.  The Harrington report found serious flaws with ESA. DWP Ministers claimed to accept all the findings of the report, yet there is little evidence that any significant changes have been made at all. On the contrary, as many people are being found "fit for work" now as they were pre-Harrington. The body of evidence grows daily as the Citizens Advice Bureau, Compass, the Government's own advisory committee, the Statutory Social Security Advisory Committee and even the professor who designed ESA, Professor Paul Gregg have all declared ESA unfit for purpose—variously "a shambles", "chaotic", or "unfit for purpose", appealing to the Government to halt the process until it has been significantly modified, yet every study has been ignored. The decision to time limit ESA.

4.  The decision to time limit contributory ESA to one year is possibly the most ill thought through policy I've ever encountered. In my opinion it shows the total lack of understanding of long-term variable or chronic conditions shown by this Government and previous administrations. To suggest that only those with cancer might be unduly affected is laughable. Very high percentages of those with long-term conditions are being found capable of some work and therefore placed in the WRAG group, yet their conditions are often degenerative, painful, distressing and limiting. Often, these people need considerable support and care from their working partners. Taking away nearly £5,000 from them will simply force these partners who want to work to support their families to give up their jobs and become full-time carers. This will cost up to five times more in 100% state dependency than ESA currently costs the taxpayer. I understand why ministers think this will work. Evidence shows that those who are off work for more than a year are less likely to return to work at all. What no-one seems to consider is that those who stay off work for more than a year are likely to be those very people with the most severe long-term conditions. As a policy, it's like sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "We can't hear you". These people will not miraculously become well just because the year is up—on the contrary, the stress and fear of destitution will often simply make these conditions worse. If the Government presses ahead with time limiting ESA to one year, I believe it will cause utter chaos as those abandoned by the state find they can no longer cope. Families will be broken apart, fraud will increase and hundreds of thousands of people will find that the covenant they thought they were promised by the state no longer exists. It is a step too far and must be withdrawn.

5.  Atos assessments are possibly the most counter-productive way of measuring a person's ability to work that it was possible to devise. Of course, if any government really wanted to help sick or disabled people find fulfilling careers, it would take money, innovation and commitment. A 15 question tick box questionnaire is so clearly going to fail those with complex or multiple needs, that I find it hard to believe any minister would need me to point it out. Assessment centres are inaccessible with no parking, they are often not modified to accommodate wheelchairs and reports show that staff vary from "cold" to "rude" and even "fraudulent". Appeals are made in 40% of cases with up to 80% of those being upheld - why would we carry on spending money on tribunals for a system that clearly isn't working? Those with mental health issues often simply cannot face the assessments at all leading to many "falling through the net" and disappearing from statistics altogether. There are countless reports of people being found fit for work simply because they were able to make it to the assessment centre with their clothes on! It's farcical. The 15 questions do not even ask about pain. Pain is one of the most significant factors in an individual's ability to work, ignoring it is a cruelty.

6.  It almost goes without saying that at a time of high unemployment, it is unlikely employers will want to take on those with long-term illnesses or disabilities if there are able-bodied applying for the same job. Of course, that's not to say we shouldn't try, but it needs incentives and resources - cutting schemes like Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund show the lack of consistency in this Government's approach to illness and disability. Between 1.2 and 2 million people are estimated to be taken off ESA and DLA in the next four years. Unemployment figures will surely rise exponentially through this, simply shifting the burden of those who are truly vulnerable elsewhere.

7.  Claims that "Virtually everyone should be on an active pathway into work" totally fail to take into account the many, many people who suffer from auto-immune or degenerative conditions that can in fact, be made worse by "overdoing it". Forcing those who are unable into work will simply increase the burden on the NHS and make people more likely to need state assistance, not less. The answer given by ministers that "those who are in genuine need will be protected" or "there is nothing to fear" is simply not true. Every scrap of evidence shows that that is simply not happening and that seriously unwell people are being found "fit for work" every day. No-one objects to a genuine policy of helping those who wish to work to do so, or even encouraging those who are unsure or nervous, but an assumption that work will make everyone better is so ignorant, I believe it is negligent.

8.  If ministers were to sit down and read the submissions people have taken great trouble to write and send in to this enquiry, I believe they would learn more in an afternoon than they would from years of Westminster statistics and forums. I read stories every day that should shame us. Stories that are so shocking they are almost unbelievable. Stories so painful to read that it makes me want to weep, yet if I were to read them from an ideological viewpoint, certain that work was always the answer, I would probably ignore them. The longer we ignore evidence that Labour got ESA totally wrong, the more people will suffer. Any policy that starts with targets for reducing a benefit is not based on compassion or a desire to help, but on an attempt to save money. You won't save money, you will simply cause untold suffering and the longer you ignore the overwhelming evidence, the more disastrous ESA will become.

9.  I urge ministers to halt the migration of IB to ESA immediately and engage with sickness and disability campaigners who are trying to make reasonable changes. We have decades and decades of experience of long-term illness and it's nuances and we are best placed to devise a policy that would actually achieve the aims you say you want to achieve. I can only warn the enquiry in the strongest terms that continuing to roll out ESA and time limiting it to one year will be a disaster. It will leave some of the most vulnerable people in our society destitute and traumatised and bring awful problems to our welfare system that will only need to be dealt with further down the line.

April 2011

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