No more repeat Work Capability Assessments until further notice

Some huge news has emerged today after a Freedom Of Information request by the Benefits and Work website.

It appears that the DWP have suspended all repeat Work Capability Assessments with Atos. This means that those who currently receive Employment Support Allowance and are in the Support Group or the Work-Related Activity Group will not be called back for repeat assessment unless the DWP are informed that their health has changed. This appears to be a move to clear the backlog of those in the Assessment Phase of ESA who are waiting for Atos to call them in for a WCA. It is unclear how this might affect the migration for those who still receive Incapacity Benefit. According to Benefits and Work the DWP memo states:

“The number of cases currently with Atos Healthcare has grown. A decision has therefore been taken to control the referral of repeat work capability assessments. Therefore, with effect from 20 January 2014, further routine repeat assessments referrals to Atos will be deferred until further notice.

“Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”

Benefits and Work also claim that the DWP did not intend to inform either MPs or claimants. The uncertainty over the timing and outcome of the WCA is a huge problem for most people who rely on ESA and the knowledge that they will be left alone in the near future would be a great help so it is a further sign of cruelty that the DWP don’t care enough to inform anyone.

This decision to suspend repeat assessments sheds new light on the recent announcement by Atos that they are seeking to get out of the contract for WCAs early anyway and on the ongoing battle between Atos and the DWP to place the blame for the failure of the entire scheme.

Dr Greg Wood put some speculation into the thinking behind this decision on his blog in the form of a fictional memo – Work Test Whistleblower: A Note For The Minister?

Source: Benefits and Work: All repeat WCA medicals to be stopped

Related:

Atos want to end DWP Work Capability Assessment contract

The problem with the Work Capability Assessment goes far deeper than Atos

 

Whistleblower says Atos Work Capability Assessments are unfair

A doctor who worked for Atos carrying out Work Capability Assessments has resigned and has told the BBC that the assessments are unfair. He says that pressure was put on Atos staff to change the outcome of the reports.

But Dr Wood has criticised some of the tests which he says contain “dubious concepts and shaky reasoning”.

He claims assessors are told that if a claimant can walk from the kitchen to the sitting room, it proves they can walk 200m (650ft); and if a person can dress themselves once during the day that is proof they have enough concentration and motivation to hold down a job.

He insists these rules are not published in handbooks and guides, instead they are simply spoken about in training sessions.

Dr Wood, who was given special responsibility to champion mental health at Atos, said: “I was instructed to change my reports, to reduce the number of points that might be awarded to the claimants. I felt that was wrong professionally and ethically.

Watch the BBC Six O’Clock News report:

BBC News talked about this some more an hour later:

Tom Greatrex MP has written to David Cameron to urge him to order an investigation.

BBC News: Disability benefit assessments ‘unfair’, says ex-worker

The Guardian: Atos benefit claimants face biased medical assessments, doctor alleges

Benefit Scrounging Scum – Q: When is a target not a target? A: When its a statistical norm

Sue Marsh – What’s the state of ESA?

Letter to my MP on new ESA regulations #esaSOS

As promised, although a little late due to lack of spoons, here is the email that I sent to my MP regarding the new ESA regulations. Feel free to take any text from this for your own use.

Dear Mr Luff,

I would like to apologise for the swearing incident which led you to block me on Twitter. As I am sure you must realise by now I suffer from mood swings and anger triggered by chronic pain and the painkillers which I take for it – something which will be inadmissible at my next Work Capability Assessment.

I have been shocked to read about new ESA regulations which will come into force on the 28th of January 2013 and I am writing to express my strong opposition to them. I appreciate that not much can be done at this late stage but this is in no small part due to the regulations coming into force less than six weeks after their announcement.

The new regulations allow a decision to be made about benefits based purely on the supposed difference that a suggested change, therapy, aid or medicine would make. This is already the case some of the time but will be much expanded in the new regulations. The new regulations do not require the Atos Health Care Professional (HCP) to discuss the suggested change with the benefit claimant before a decision is made by the DWP. It is of vital importance that any medicine, mobility aid or prosthetic or other change that an Atos HCP might feel would improve the claimant’s chances of working should be signed off by the patients own specialist doctors and by the claimant themselves before any decision. The Atos HCP is not the claimant’s doctor, (indeed, they are usually not a doctor at all) is not knowledgeable of the claimant’s condition, and the Work Capability Assessment, by the DWP’s own admission, is not a medical assessment.

There are numerous reasons why the change that the Atos HCP suggests might not be appropriate. It is quite possible that the change might not be available in that area or at all or might involve a very long waiting list. In Worcestershire, for example, wheelchairs are not available at all to people who can stagger around their own home. Prosthetic limbs are expensive everywhere. In many cases a person may be advised not to use a wheelchair, prosthetic limb or other aid because to do so will hasten the progression of their disease. A claimant may well have tried or considered a particular change but ruled it out because of negative side effects.

Even if the change were considered by doctors and the patient, there is the huge issue of consent. This change could compel people to take up a particular medical treatment through pressure from removal of their benefits and several legal experts have suggested that this could well breach their human rights. To push ahead with this could be extremely costly for the DWP when legal cases are brought.

Even worse than the above change, the new regulations will strictly separate the impact of mental health conditions and physical health conditions. This is an absurd change which ignores the reality of illness. Many medications for mental health problems cause physical problems, and many pain drugs cause cognitive problems. Impairments caused by a problem in the other category must be taken into account.

I do hope that you will agree with me that these regulations are a serious problem and will express your opposition to them.

Sincerely,

Steven Sumpter.

Sneaky Work Capability Assessment rules judge you fit for work based on imaginary help

There are new regulations for Employment Support Allowance about to come into force on the 28th of January. These regulations were proposed only six weeks before they will come into force, leaving very little time for the impact to be considered.

Worse, these regulations make drastic changes to the assumptions made during the assessment that will result in even more people being refused sickness benefits or told to take part in work-related activity.

ESA SOS! Refusing help
Doc Hackenbush explains the change (Click to enlarge)

The two big changes are:

An assessor can consider what mobility aids, equipment, medical treatments or medicines might help the claimant return to work, and then, without consulting them as to whether the change is suitable, they can judge them fit for work or for work related activity based on them making that change. This completely ignores things like side-effects of medication, suitability of adaptions and mobility aids, or even if such help is available to the individual. This could already happen to some extent, such as with wheelchairs, but will now apply to a far wider range of changes. This also raises the huge problem of medical treatment without consent, since refusing to take a drug that could help a person return to work, even for very good reasons, could lead to benefits being withdrawn.

The second huge change is to how the the assessment considers the relationship between mental and physical health conditions. Where previously any disability or restriction could be applied to any activity, whether it was caused by mental problems or physical problems. These new regulations will strictly separate the two such that one set of questions considers purely physical restrictions, and another set purely mental restrictions. You may be completely unable to perform a task due to mental illness, but be considered able to physically and therefore able to full stop. This equally applies to side effects of medicines. For medicines that treat mental health conditions, only the impact of side effects ON mental health will be considered. Crippling physical side effects caused by treatment for mental health will be completely ignored when deciding that a person can work.

These changes will pull the rug from under the feet (or wheels) of hundreds of thousands more people who are struggling to live, never mind to earn a wage. Make no mistake; whatever the intention of these changes, this is a cut in support.

What you can do

The clearest analysis of these changes that I have read is from Ekklesia. Briefing on ESA Regulations [Ekklesia] I recommend that you read this.

Please write to your MP urgently to oppose these new regulations. You can find and contact your email through Write to Them. My own communication with my MP will be available on this blog later today.

Please share this and other blogs about this subject on Twitter with the hashtag #esaSOS as well as on Facebook and anywhere else you think suitable. A tweet of your own will have far more impact than a retweet.

Please also add your signature to the War On Welfare petition to call for a cumulative impact assessment of this government’s welfare reforms.

Further Reading

DWP guidance on the changes: Memo DMG 1/13 [PDF]

The Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 [legislation.gov.uk]

Diary of a benefit scrounger: ESA SOS

Thousands of disabled and sick people will be hit by new ESA/WCA changes [Ekklesia]

 

Why does everyone have to work?

An audio version of this blog post is available on episode 164 of The Pod Delusion, 40 minutes in.

A lot of tasks are carried out by people not employed to carry them out. People care for relatives, cook for neighbours, run clubs for children, look after communal gardens where they live. This is the real big society. Many of these people are not in employment at all, never mind paid to do what they do.

Others pursue hobbies that might bring great joy to them and to society, or provide useful innovations applicable to other things. Writers, inventors, amateur scientists, musicians, artists – all produce things of great worth to society. When people work all hours for an employer these tasks are neglected but when people work less or not at all they are free to pursue these things.

Parents are not valued by society for the task that they do, instead it being expected that both parents in a couple will work

There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job.

Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor. Politicians argue that we should have more conditionality in our system; that we should return to an insurance style of benefit for out-of-work benefits so that those who have not spent enough time in work cannot claim the same benefits that those who have worked for years can. They want to take benefits away from those who don’t make enough effort to find a job. The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity scheme send people to do unpaid work for big businesses and charities, punishing those who refuse by taking away their tiny benefits for weeks, months or even years, even though such “work experience” is often simply manual labour that requires little training and does not help anyone to find a permanent job. Many people express the opinion that those in receipt of welfare benefits should not have “luxuries” such as Sky TV or broadband, and resent such things being paid for by benefits out of tax funds, seeing themselves as personally paying for such things. Indeed, government ministers have floated the idea of paying benefits in the form of payment cards that cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco which is a terrible idea.

The question that I want to ask, though, is why does everyone have to work?

I believe the answer is that they don’t.

In our modern industrial society we have driven down the cost of production through two things: exploitation of cheap overseas labour, and mechanisation and automation. I will come back to the first of these later, but what of the second?

Mechanisation has vastly reduced the need for labour. More could be done to continue this trend, but historically it has been opposed by unions because it puts people out of work. I think the time has come to say GOOD. Let’s put people out of work. Automate everything that can be automated. The remaining jobs should be divided up between everyone who wants to work, reducing the hours of all jobs until all those who want to work have the working hours that they want.

Of course doing so would leave many people without any income, or dependant on Job Seeker’s Allowance and looking for jobs that just don’t exist. (As is already the case.) These people cannot be punished for failing to find jobs that don’t exist, that is indefensible. I propose a change in the way that society thinks about people who do not work. We must stop resenting them, stop begrudging them any small luxuries that they may have, and instead pay them a decent income that allows a decent life. But that would be unfair! Why should they get something that you do not? Well there is a solution to that. Pay a salary to everyone, working or not, deserving or not. This concept is known variously as Universal Income, Citizen’s Income, Basic Income, or combinations thereof. Here’s how it would work:

Every adult citizen would receive a salary, paid to them by the government, of enough to cover basic living costs. It would perhaps be set at a level that would cover one person living in a shared house or a couple living together.

To finance this, the tax allowance would be abolished. Instead the citizen’s income would be paid tax free, and all earnings from other sources would be taxed at the standard rate from the start. Nearly all in-work and out of work benefits would also be abolished. Anyone without a job would stop receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit as those are replaced by the Citizen’s Income. Indeed, Housing Benefit to anyone who is in work would also cease.

Sick and disabled people would no longer receive ESA. They would receive Citizen’s Income too. In their case, though, they have additional expenses and a higher cost of living caused by needing to adapt things around them and inability to access some services so they would still receive Disability Living Allowance to provide for that, and care would still be funded by government.

The benefits that Citizen’s Income would bring are large. There would be no need to means-test people, and means testing is expensive. There would be no reason to track people’s efforts to look for work, and there would be no reason to punish anyone for not working – eliminating a huge bureaucracy required to do those things. There would be no stress and fear of losing benefits imposed on people who for one reason or another cannot work, no Work Capability Assessment – leading to improvements in health and quality of life.

Of course people will object to those choosing not to work, which is why we all need to approach the idea with less judgement. Although benefit fraud is tiny and the number of people who would choose not to work is low, such people do exist. There are people who do not want to work and there are people who are just plain unemployable. Under the current and proposed systems they would be punished for not finding work and ultimately end up homeless or dependant on family or charity if anyone at all. I do not think doing this is the action of a humane society. Would it not be better to let these people stay out of the workplace, avoid employing people who do not want to be there or would not do a good job? It may well be that eventually such people will decide that they do want to work and will then find a job that they want to do and pay taxes. There are many people that do want to work but only part time, and a Citizen’s income would enable them to do so where the current system would make it impossible.

Allowing more people to work for less hours might also have the benefit of making some jobs more attractive so that work currently carried out overseas or by immigrants becomes feasible to carry out locally, thus working towards solving the problem of exploitation of cheap overseas labour.

Such a system would have to be introduced alongside rent caps to prevent private landlords from taking advantage of more available income by inflating rents. I cannot pretend that a Citizen’s Income would not be very attractive to people in some other countries too, and short of introducing the idea worldwide we would have to consider carefully how to treat immigrants. (This sentence makes me uncomfortable, but I think it does need to be considered.)

Citizen’s Income would:

  • Replace the tax allowance and the benefits system
  • Make savings on means testing and administration
  • Allow freedom to work part time, full time or not at all
  • Allow the pursuit of hobbies and interests away from work
  • Produce inventions and innovations that benefit us all
  • Result in the production of books, music and art
  • Allow people to perform services for others and their community
  • Shift the balance of power from employers to employees
  • Provide security when jobs are not secure
  • Remove the fear and stress of disability assessments

The whole idea of Citizen’s Income necessitates a huge shift in the way that our society thinks but since many are calling for a rethink of our welfare system anyway I think now is the time to consider it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert, so if I have made any errors or misrepresented anything please let me know.

Further Reading

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation

 

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits

IDS - "We've heard enough of you"
“We’ve heard enough from you.”

Owen Jones confronted Iain Duncan Smith with the names of two people who have died as a result of the work capability assessment. He did not react well. I urge you to watch this video of the last part of Question Time, particularly the last minute if you want to see what IDS is really like.

“Hang on a second, we’ve heard a lot from you. Let me tell you something. I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who are parked, nobody saw them for over ten years, not working, with no hope, no aspiration, we are changing their lives, I am proud of doing that, getting them off benefit is what we are going to do.”

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits. Never mind that there is no work for them to go to even if they can, and that the way lives are being changed is by sending people further into poverty and homelessness. Not only that, but he thinks that being “parked on benefits” and left alone is a bad thing. Well those of us on permanent sickness and disability benefits do have hopes and aspirations. We hope to not have too much pain today and we aspire to getting the care that we need so that we can undertake something entertaining that isn’t lying in bed waiting to die. We probably don’t aspire to being a rich Tory, which is probably similar to being dead in the head of Iain Duncan Smith. As for nobody seeing sick people, now they are being reassessed so frequently that they are committing suicide. Winning an appeal at tribunal often leads to an immediate call to another assessment.

https://twitter.com/crazybladeuk/status/271197324594786305

Dead people don't get benefits
Dead people don’t get benefits – cartoon by @dochackenbush

Further Reading

Brian Mcardle: Atos benefits bullies killed my sick dad, says devastated Kieran, 13

Karen Sherlock: How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen’s Story – RIP Karen Sherlock, Disability Rights Campaigner – Died June 8th 2012

Hundreds more: The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment

 

Third Harrington review of the Work Capability Assessment

The third independent review of the Work Capability Assessment [PDF] by Professor Harrington has been released today. I am not particularly impressed with it, particularly Harrington’s criticism of those who have campaigned against the current welfare reform.

The WCA continues to be portrayed in an extremely negative light, often fuelled by adverse media coverage, representative groups and political points scoring. Whilst the Review continues to hear examples of individuals who have been poorly treated by the WCA process, DWP can be reasonably pleased with what they have achieved. Some recognition of the considerable work to date would give a more balanced picture and DWP needs to be more proactive in communicating this. [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t know what world Harrington inhabits but that “adverse media coverage” was brought about by relentless campaigning from those who are directly affected in horrendous ways – “representative groups” and the only “political points scoring” we’ve made has been nearly universally against all three main parties. We have had a very hard time getting people within those parties to see the problem at all. Calling for the DWP to get better PR is not the solution.
Right in the foreward I was struck by his comments about tribunal judges.

Recommendations on the training of professionals in DWP Operations, Atos Healthcare and the Tribunals have produced some limited progress. In particular, it is regrettable that the First-tier Tribunal has effectively distanced itself from the rest of the WCA. Feedback from the Judges to the Decision Makers has, at last, started in a rudimentary way. However, much, much more is needed if we are to see a real dialogue between the Judges and the Decision Makers. This must happen on cases where there is a difference of opinion on what category is appropriate for that case based on the same set of evidence. For the First-tier Tribunal to suggest that the WCA Independent Review has no remit to consider the appeal stage of the process is illogical and untenable in my view. [Emphasis mine.]

Harrington is calling for feedback from tribunal judges to the Atos assessors and the DWP decision makers over why they reached different decisions to those made by the DWP. However the comments that Robert Devereux DWP private secretary made before the Public Accounts Committee on the 19th appear to be directly quoting the paragraph above out of context and instead criticised the tribunal judges for reaching a different decision. His thought appears to be that if looking at the same evidence then the decision should also be the same, without considering that the original decision makers might have been wrong. What Devereux and Harrington both seem to have missed is that Atos and the DWP have often failed to look at the evidence at all and the face-to-face assessment is not likely to find anything that strays from the Lima computer system’s checklist. There have been many cases where Atos and DWP staff have refused to look at evidence from healthcare professionals or refused to wait for evidence, and many more cases where evidence has been lost in the system somewhere between health care professional and decision maker.

One of Harrington’s conclusions stood out to me:

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) remains a valid concept for assessing benefit claimants’ eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Whilst the WCA continues to garner considerable – and sometimes, but not always, justifiable – criticism the Independent Reviewer has not seen or heard any compelling arguments or evidence that the whole system should be scrapped. Instead it needs to be made fairer and more effective by improving both the process and the technical descriptors used to assess eligibility.

I know a lot of people would disagree with that, but I think this is a lost battle and the public will continue to support assessments in this way. I took a little more hope from his recognition that we do need change.

A number of the major charities in this year’s call for evidence say that although they have seen some change for the better, it is disappointingly incomplete in coverage and depth. I agree with them. Changing such a large and complex process and such a controversial assessment takes time – it is happening.

So far as the descriptors are concerned, progress has been positive but slow. We are close to a new and much improved set of provisions for cancer treatment. For the mental, intellectual and cognitive conditions descriptors and for the fluctuating condition descriptors, work is underway for a formal review of new proposals from a number of charities to compare them with the existing descriptors. This work will continue into 2013 and I have been asked to chair the expert independent steering group overseeing the quality and validity of the evidence-based review. It is important to wait for the results of this before rushing to conclusions about how to change the descriptors.

We know from earlier this year that the DWP have been testing new descriptors and I hope that there will be progress on these so that serious conditions affecting ability to function which are currently missed will be noted in future. Also note in the paragraph above that Harrington is to continue working with the DWP on this aspect.

Media-friendly Cancer

I am concerned that cancer treatment has been singled out as needing special attention once again. Cancer is very bad and unpleasant and everyone knows someone who has had it, that’s why it is politically dangerous to send patients on chemotherapy to work. However many other conditions are equally serious and yet not so media-friendly and are therefore treated differently. The Work Capability Assessment is supposed to be about assessing the impact of the condition on ability to function, not what treatment is being received.

Recommendations

Harrington made a number of recommendations to the DWP. I am pleased that the first is for decision makers to consider the need for further documentary evidence. Whether they will do this or not is another question but as I said before the gathering of evidence is a big problem.

It is essential that all relevant medical and allied evidence about the claimant is available to the DWP Decision Maker at the earliest possible stage in the assessment process. If this can be achieved then Tribunals will be based on Judges and Medical Members considering the same body of evidence as the Decision Maker did.

Less pleasing is his second recommendation:

DWP Operations need to find an appropriate balance between better quality decisions that are carefully considered and ‘right first time’ and the achievement of appropriate benchmarks at a local level.

Now I could be wrong here, but that looks very much like a target.

The third recommendation is that the DWP should try to get more feedback from tribunals as to why decisions are overturned. This seems reasonable as it could affect change in the decisions made to start with. The fourth recommendation is that the DWP must highlight improvements, and be open about problems. As I said before, better PR for the DWP is not the answer. I’m open to hearing about improvements made but not if they are used to distract from problems that remain unsolved.

As an antidote to this review I recommend that you look at The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment from We Are Spartacus. Also note that DWP statistics released yesterday [PDF] show that 53% of the people placed in the Support Group for ESA are put there without a Work Capability Assessment.

I’ll leave you with this comment from Harrington.

Considerable disquiet remains, and this cannot be ignored

You’re damn right it can’t!

 

What’s the difference between 1930s Germany and modern-day Britain?

Before we start I would like to point out that I am not a historian and I am not a sociologist and as such I have done my best to present the information here as I understand it. With that out of the way, I’ll start with an overview of how disabled people were treated in Germany during WWII.

1930s Germany

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
A poster about how expensive disabled people are.

The Aktion T4 programme ran in Germany from 1939 to 1945. In the 1920s  Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, part of an extreme eugenics movement, advocated killing those who were judged to have “life unworthy of life.”  In the 1930s there were huge cuts to state institutions causing overcrowding and Nazi propaganda emphasised the cost of caring for mentally ill and disabled people. In 1939 parents of disabled child Gerhard Kretschmar wrote to Hitler to ask him to permit their child to be killed. Hitler agreed and immediately set up a committee whose job was to organise more such murders – Aktion T4. When the war started parents were told that their mentally ill and physically disabled children were being sent to special treatments centres. In fact they were murdered without the knowledge of the parents. The programme was soon extended to adults, starting in Poland then in Germany. Throughout the programme Hitler knew that there would be huge opposition to such killing and so he never put his orders in writing. The one exception was a secret letter written to authorise the formation of the Aktion T4 programme, mainly because his justice minister would not cooperate without one. The programme operated in secrecy until it was too late for most people. Under the programme at least 200,000 disabled people were murdered over six years, either through lethal medication, starvation or gas chambers.

Modern Britain

Now we jump forward to Britain today. The events I describe in the paragraph above are unthinkable. No government minister, no tabloid newspaper, no man in the street would advocate such things, right?

That’s not quite true though. Most of the pieces are in place. We have propaganda pushing the idea that sick and disabled people are scroungers, workshy, lazy. This propaganda is coming from government ministers, their special advisers, and tabloids like the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail. Even broadsheets like the Times and the Telegraph have contributed. Such propaganda has even been raised by MPs in the Work and Pensions Select Committee and ministers told to stop. The propaganda is working too, with hate crimes against disabled people up in vast numbers.

We have many people fighting to legalise assisted suicide, inadvertently promoting the idea that life for some people is not worth living. Sure, we’re only asking for voluntary euthanasia, but what other factors might be in play? Pressure to stop being a burden, financial problems, cuts to care all contribute to a desire for death. If euthanasia becomes legal what is to stop people from being pushed to kill themselves? It may be overt or it may be through suggestion and through making their lives hell. (This is more my fear of how it could go wrong than any judgement on my part for or against euthanasia.)

We have cuts to local authority care budgets, starting in Worcestershire, that mean anyone whose care costs more than sending them to an institution will lose some care. The politicians argue that it’s a choice because people can choose to move to a care home or to cut some of their care provision. But what to cut? Eating? Washing? Dressing? Using a toilet? We have already seen people lose in court after fighting to not have to wear a nappy. Adults are expected to soil themselves rather than get help to use a toilet. We have also seen the loss of the independent living fund. The net result is loss of care or institutionalising people. Most care homes are run by private companies and neglect does not seem uncommon. I think more abuse and neglect is likely especially when companies are cutting costs because they have underquoted better homes.

We have sick and disabled people being  judged as fit to work and told to claim job seeker’s allowance and look for work, and we have even more seriously sick and disabled people being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Both groups are subject to The Work Programme where they are expected to undertake unpaid work experience for large companies, and government plans are to make such work placements of unlimited duration. Work makes you free.

Under these plans anyone who is seen to not be cooperating with The Work Programme and other work related activities will see their benefit income slashed. Those on Job Seeker’s Allowance can have their entire allowance removed entirely for weeks, even six months. Those on Employment Support Allowance (e.g. too sick to work) will see three quarters of their allowance removed. Of course anyone who has been judged as fit to work or has been placed in the WRAG is expected to be capable of going on work placements even if their assessment was wrong and they are waiting a year for an appeal, and even if people are seriously harmed by trying to work. The result is that those who don’t destroy themselves trying to find jobs that don’t exist or going to endless work placements will instead not be able to afford food, clothes, fuel bills, rent and more. Many will be able to use food banks but some will not be physically able to get to them and food banks rely on charity from other people who are struggling too.

The result

Is it such a large step for disabled people to be dying? No. It’s already  happening. Reports in April claimed that 1,100 people had already died after being placed in the work related activity group. That’s more than thirty people a week. This is what Chris Grayling calls “Tough love.”

Some government ministers make policy decisions without thinking about the consequences of what will happen in practice. Others are fully aware of what will happen and just don’t care. Either way, they are often covered by claiming that their policy in itself does not harm people, even though the flaws with implementation allow people to fall through the net and come to harm. Government ignore evidence. They dismiss statistics, they blame the previous government, they claim that processes are being sorted out now, they claim that any harm is the fault of the sick or disabled or unemployed individual. The Government are hiding behind Atos and A4e who are “just carrying out orders” but they way they carry out those orders makes things even worse. Government ministers have the same attitude as many other people in power – they can say “make it happen” and the minions do the dirty work.

In 1930s Germany the government themselves ordered the rounding up and the killing of disabled people. In modern-day Britain the government can claim that it is not their fault, even that it should not happen, but private companies and the chasm of bureaucracy between various government departments are what kill people. Starvation, homelessness and neglect are what will kill people. The implementation is different and the scale is different but the attitude and the outcome are the same.

 

Further Reading

Godwin’s law must die [A Latent Existence]

Action T4 [Wikipedia]

Disabled benefits claimants face £71 a week fines for breaching work plan [The Guardian]

32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit [Mirror]

Early day motion 295 [Parliament]

Work-or-starve plans for seriously ill welfare claimants might backfire [Eklesia]

Past Caring? [We are Spartacus]

 

Benefit guilt

I recently wrote about my income in detail. I did so partly because the benefits that I receive were listed in a newspaper (My own fault) without actually explaining them, and the amounts caused a few negative comments.

Since making my income public one thing that has been bothering me is that while my wife and I now receive enough money to live on and DLA to provide for the extra costs of my care and mobility, a vast  number of my friends do not. And I feel sort of guilty about that. I know that I shouldn’t, I am getting the proper benefits for my circumstances, but I feel horrible that other people – many with greater need than me – don’t get the help that they are supposed to get.

I went through a Work Capability Assessment with Atos and I was placed in the support group. I know that I am sick enough to merit ESA and DLA but it was always in doubt whether Atos would recognise that. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my journey to the assessment centre hadn’t been so awful. (You can read about that travesty on a previous blog post.) If I hadn’t arrived shaken, stressed and exhausted perhaps my assessment would have gone quite differently – Atos have been criticised for ignoring variable health problems and could easily have judged me differently if I had appeared well that day.

Perhaps it is chance that I ended up in the Support Group for ESA rather than the Work Related Activity Group or even found fit for work. But then my DLA was awarded on the basis of the Work Capability Assessment too, even though that isn’t supposed to happen until PIP is introduced. So is that two benefits received by pure chance? Being awarded ESA helped me to get DLA and getting DLA has increased the amount that I get from ESA, and both of those ensure that I get housing benefit too. At some point I may get carers allowance although that might lower the amount that I get from ESA.

The point is, I now have enough to live on without being in poverty and always struggling to pay the bills. Many other people are not so lucky. What I really want is for access to these benefits to be available to all the other people that need it. I have so many friends who haven’t got the benefits that they so desperately need. Friends who can’t walk, or can’t get out of bed, or can’t cook for themselves. Friends who have been through the assessments by Atos and refused on absurd grounds. Friends who are in hospital near death and don’t get benefits. I was really terrified that I wasn’t going to get my ESA, and the form filling for benefits and the assessment process itself made me more stressed which led to me being more physically ill too.

Even when people have managed to get all the benefits to which they are entitled it isn’t always enough. I need relatively few adjustments to live. A wheelchair, a shower seat. Some people need hoists and lifting equipment and wet rooms and stairlifts and bigger rooms to fit it all in… and the list goes on. Of course some of that can be paid for in other ways such as from council funds or (until now) the Independent Living Fund but many people end up sorting out their own adaptions. I talked to my GP about getting an NHS wheelchair yesterday and she suggested that it would be quicker and easier to buy one for myself. (Not that I can’t try to get an NHS one.) That happens a lot with costlier items too.

Clearly the benefits system isn’t great at the moment. It’s obvious that it needs reform to solve these problems. But – and this is an important but – the Welfare Reform Bill doesn’t solve these problems. It makes them far worse. It abolishes multiple sources of funding, it cuts the DLA / PIP budget by 20% and it restricts who can get help and who will receive PIP. Government ministers have told us that those most in need will get more help. What they are less keen to tell everyone is that the extra help for those most in need is being snatched away from those who are only quite in need. If you need help but not loads of help, that’s tough. Because the government says you’re not going to get any help at all.

Welfare Reform Bill – the problems

The Welfare Reform Bill will, according to the Parliament website, replace means-tested benefits with a new Universal Credit. This is a huge change which in theory I am in favour of, except that I believe that the government have got the implementation and the details very very wrong.  The website lists these other key areas where the bill will change things:

Key areas

  • introduces Personal Independence Payments to replace the current Disability Living Allowance
  • restricts Housing Benefit entitlement for social housing tenants whose accommodation is larger than they need
  • up-rates Local Housing Allowance rates by the Consumer Price Index
  • amends the forthcoming statutory child maintenance scheme
  • limits the payment of contributory Employment and Support Allowance to a 12-month period
  • caps the total amount of benefit that can be claimed.

During the Committee Stage, the Government amended the Bill to provide for the establishment of a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

That all seems quite well-intentioned and innocuous, however the detail is a lot less reassuring. I probably can’t do any better at explaining why than this blog post which I recommend reading – So The Welfare Reform Bill Doesn’t Affect YOU!?!

The aspects of the bill that most worry me are those that impact on sick and disabled people. Those aspects are:

  • Limiting contribution based ESA to one year for people in the WRAG, after which people may only claim income-based ESA if their partner earns less than £7,500 per year. People who have paid their National Insurance and have become ill but are expected to regain some ability to work within two to five years with the right support will receive contribution based ESA for one year. After that they will be made dependant on any partner or family earning over £7,500 per year and have no independent income unless they live alone.
  • Introducing frequent assessments for everyone receiving PIP, even those who will only get worse, or cannot get better, and including those made worse by assessments.
  • Making PIP much harder to get by redefining disability. (Expecting to save 20%) People will be considered able to wash themselves if they can wash only above the waist. I am sure that everyone wishes to clean their genitals and anus. As a diabetic I am supposed to pay very careful attention to looking after my feet, but if I can’t wash them, I won’t get help with it. Changes to the definition of mobility are worrying too.
  • Stopping the practice of treating people disabled from childhood as having paid NI – meaning they will never get contribution based ESA and so never have an independent income
  • No longer pay for spare rooms in social housing, even for disabled people with a proven need such as a separate bed for a partner or carer or a space for mobility equipment or for treatment of some kind.
  • Prevent access to other support by removing PIP from many people. DLA / PIP is a gateway benefit which allows access to things like the blue badge parking scheme, a free bus pass, or proof of disability to access support from energy companies and others. When many people do not qualify for PIP they could lose these things.

There are a whole host of problems for people who are on a low income or unemployed. The bill will:

  • Introduce sanctions – stopping benefits for four weeks, three months, or three years. Punishing people by removing their income will make people homeless and may drive some towards crime. Unfortunately the range of things that you could be sanctioned for is more than just fraud.
  • Punish people for making mistakes on benefit claim forms.
  • Send people on unpaid work experience (“The Work Programme”) and sanction them if they don’t go or if they don’t get a good report. This is the same work programme that has people doing unpaid shelf stacking or washing floors alongside people getting a proper wage for the same job. And a mere 20% of people on the work programme get any kind of employment out of it.
  • Sanction people who don’t improve their appearance when told to. To what degree changes can be ordered is not specified.
  • Charge parents for the use of the Child Support Agency after breaking up. £20 – £50 fee, plus 7 – 12% of ALL income. An extra income tax for not having a partner, or for having escaped from an abusive relationship. Charges are likely to cause people to ignore the CSA – which is the government’s intention – but probably in favour of no support at all.
  • Limit total household benefits to £26,000 per year. (Except when on high rate PIP?) The main problem with this is that people in expensive places like London or Brighton will be forced to move away, potentially leaving family behind and losing local support such as care or child care.
  • Abolished the social fund, which pays for emergencies and provides crisis loans.
  • Introducing vouchers to pay for particular costs – potentially where you can buy your food, clothing, energy and so on will be dictated to you.
  • Force both people in a couple to look for work in order to qualify for Universal Credit. Since Universal Credit replaces housing benefit, low-paid (minimum wage) families will no longer have a choice to send one parent to work while the other cares for the children. Both parents must work.
Thanks to DarkestAngel32 for finding some of these points.
There are some changes that are happening outside of the Welfare Reform Bill. Tax credits are changing from 6 April 2012 including changes to the number of hours of work necessary to qualify. The Local Housing Allowance is already being seriously reduced, meaning that people are being forced to move out of accommodation that is too expensive, without always having somewhere to go. This has already caused some people to move from their own home into care at great cost to local authorities. The Independent Living Fund – which pays for severely disabled people to live in their own homes – has also been cut because it is “not financially sustainable.” The result will be that 20,000 people might have to move back in to care homes at even greater expense.

Some useful links