What’s the state of ESA?

This won’t be a short post, but it is a crucially important one.
I have never written about something on this blog that I couldn’t prove to be true. If I didn’t have evidence that I could show you online, I didn’t write about it.
I’ve had many conversations with Labour MPs or peers or journalists or managing directors or trade unions  that I couldn’t share, but each one added to my overall understanding of ESA (Employment Support Allowance)
Today though, I think it’s important that I try to lay out very clearly what I feel I “know” about ESA, WCAs, Atos, the DWP and the current political situation.
I’ve dismissed those I judged to be fools along the way, the way we all do every day as we decide to trust someone or not, to believe something or not. I’ve made my judgements from meeting people, from talking to them. I like to “see the whites of their eyes” when I can. I research people, I try to “know” them and what makes them tick.
I’ve judged evidence and analysis along the way and tried always to get as close to a truth I could prove as possible.
I’ve dug into the history of welfare reform where I could. I’ve tried to find out what was going on with Labour at the time, when were Atos brought in? What was Unum’s involvement, who designed ESA? Which DPOs and charities were involved?
At every stage, with every decision, every   speech, every article, I’ve tried to think of the people who read my blog. I’ve tried to ask what we need to change and why. How to change it. Who are the real enemies? Why? What methods of demanding change are effective?
 Of course, my judgements may not have been yours. I have absolutely no way of actually “knowing” if I was right or wrong, too naïve or too cynical, biased or balanced but the following summary is where I feel we are in my heart from everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve met.
There are so many things that so urgently need changing about ESA, forgive me if I forget any here. For every bullet point, the section in italics is my opinion on where we currently stand.
  •       Medical evidence from own GP or consultant rarely taken into account
One of the most shocking statistics disclosed about WCAs was that DWP decision makers only refer to medical evidence as well as the Atos decisions in 2% of cases. Harrington recommended that medical evidence should always be considered and there has been progress- 8% of decisions are now overturned by DWP decision makers, suggesting they are referring to medical evidence much more. This has not yet been rolled out everywhere, so we might hope to see the figures improve further. However, the ideal solution would be for decisions to be taken by an independent doctor, based on all the evidence available.
  •     Descriptors used to assess fitness to work are far too narrow and not based on real life. They discriminate against those with mental illness, long term chronic illness, learning difficulties and more.
No assessment can ever be fair or functional if the descriptors are wrong. ESA descriptors are so wrong, they need totally fundamental reform. I got the impression that something shifted in the early part of this year. Government suddenly decided to go ahead with a trial of alternative descriptors (you can see them here) that were much fairer and broader and more rooted in a real life test. Though far from perfect, I believe they would give much more realistic results and provide much more opportunity for HCPs to make informed decisions.

The timescales to test these new descriptors is very quick for government. They will be trialled alongside a panel of expert decision makers to see how accurate they are. This process will be run by civil servants and if they are a notable improvement on the current descriptors, government do say that they will be implemented. 

We can help make sure the new descriptors are fairly trialled and the results accurately reported by keeping an eye on the trial, communicating with the charities responsible for writing the new descriptors and making sure that this isn’t somehow quietly shelved while we’re not looking. However, if all went well, we might be looking at the introduction of the new descriptors by 2014.
  •          Disability assessment centres are not all accessible to disabled people, often with no parking (!?!)
This is something that Atos has pledged to change as soon as they can. Whether might choose to be sceptical, but they have said on their blog and elsewhere that they are committed to quickly making all centres fully accessible. 

We can make sure they do this by writing to them and saying how important it is, urging them not to delay and telling them your own stories of trying to access an inaccessible centre.
  •          The Support group is too narrow and far too difficult to get into.
Support group numbers have been steadily rising. Last year the government had to find an extra £1 billion due to paying more people than they had predicted going into the support group. The figures are still rising and suggest they will continue to rise as the Harrington changes are rolled out. Grayling has said that they are “intensely relaxed” about this rise in Support Group numbers if it means those in genuine need are getting help and certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this rise being suppressed or restricted. 

Once the latest figures are adjusted to take account of appeal decisions, around 35% will end up in the Support Group, around  42% in the WRAG and 23% fit for work. This is a huge improvement on the shocking days of  new-claim only  ESA stats, where just 6% were going into the support group, 18% into the WRAG and a full 77% of claims not resulting in any award of ESA. 

There’s still a long way to go. I would argue that the support group should be bigger than the WRAG and that 23% is too many being found fit for work, but there really has been great improvement.
  •          Sanctions of any kind, but particularly time limiting bad health to one year, are inappropriate for people with serious illnesses or disabilities.
Sanctions and penalties are most beloved by this government despite no evidence at all, anywhere in the world that they work. They have totally refused to listen or compromise at all over this and I can’t see that they will. The public are currently very supportive of sanctions and mostly believe they should actually be tougher.

However, workfare, work providers and some of the reality of sanctions have taken a hit this year thanks to the work of people like Johnny Void and Boycott Workfare, with big companies experiencing a strong public backlash leading them and charities to pull out of workfare and other failing schemes. 

More to the point, the way the government has set up the “payment by results” scheme, means that small providers who tend to get good results are going to the wall while less targeted, less successful large companies are unable to hit the targets set. The reality is, most sanctions will either never be used, or will be quietly abandoned as the government realise they either cause too much embarrassment or the scheme collapses totally because none of the providers are getting paid.
  •          Decisions take far too long. Appealing a wrong decision can take well over a year.
This is only getting worse with backlogs growing, targets for re-assessment falling further behind and tribunals taking longer. Soon, as the government realise that it is, in fact, impossible to actually assess 2 million people and keep on assessing them indefinitely. They cannot achieve accurate assessment rates assessing 11,000 people a week. There simply aren’t the HCPs to do the job. 

Assessment rates need to fall by around half and government must accept that the whole process will take longer then they predicted. When assessment rates DO fall, the appeal rate also falls drastically as shown in Kettering who have implemented all of the Harrington changes enthusiastically. Getting the decision right first time, by taking the necessary time with each claimant saves the taxpayer millions and the person being assessed trauma and unnecessary waits for tribunals etc.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that Atos and the DWP are now pre-assessing many as unable to work without calling them for assessment. This is exactly what we always said they would have to do. It is how the original IB system worked and though the government are clinging on to the rhetoric, they are realising we were right all along and there really IS no point in assessing people who will never get better and who clearly will never work. This is a big win, but you’re unlikely to hear about it.·         Healthcare professionals (HCPs) used by Atos to assess disability do not have to be doctors and do not need to have any specialism or prior understanding of the condition the claimant suffers from to make a decision.

Atos have pledged “mental health champions”, up and down the country, claiming that they will make the assessments fairer for those suffering from mental illness. This is welcome, but unless the assessor has some knowledge of the conditions they are assessing they cannot possibly make an accurate decision. Atos might consider other teams of expert assessor for other conditions. Though it might mean claimants travelling further to be assessed, if specialist teams were more accurate it would be a small price to pay. All HCPs should have a working knowledge of either general medicine or the speciality of the person they are assessing.
  •         Reports written by HCPs are inaccurate; often bearing no resemblance to what the claimant reports was actually said.
This still seems to be shockingly common. The DWP have said in principle that all assessments can be recorded, but in reality are blocking the process. Until someone being assessed for ESA is afforded the same basic rights as a criminal, and assessments are recorded, claimants cannot make sure this doesn’t happen. 

As both Atos and the DWP have said that assessments can be recorded and have pledged to get working recording machines into assessment centres, we can make sure people get accurate HCP reports by keeping the pressure on the DWP to provide these machines in every centre. This is one area that I know is under great pressure legally too. Having the law on our side can only help.
  •          Questions are misleading, seemingly designed to “catch people out”
A longer assessment using the improved descriptors, should make this less likely, but there is a culture of suspicion between state and claimant that must be talked from the roots up. All the time ESA is only designed to catch the cheats, it will never serve those in genuine need.
  •         Mail containing highly personal and sensitive information on forms is opened and sorted by a third party.
Mails used to be opened by the Royal Mail, sorted and only then sent on to Atos. Once the DWP finally accepted that the practise was commonplace, they have now pledged to stop it. We can make sure they do by keeping the pressure on.
  •          Correspondence sent to the claimant is threatening and frightening.
This is one area where Atos have seemed very keen to make improvements. They have redesigned their website to make information more easily available, less frightening and more sensitive. They now have a patient charter and say that they will work hard to make the whole claimant experience more customer focussed and compassionate. 

They would like people to advise them on how to do that, what we would like to change etc. Of course, we can refuse to make things better right at the point where Atos are asking how to, but that feels a bit like a four year old having a tantrum. We’re grown ups and we can’t change things if we don’t explain what needs to change and why.
  •         Language used by politicians and press to discuss those claiming ESA is derogatory and demeaning. Scroungers, skivers, feckless, festering – we are called all these things. Journalism is often lazy and full of inaccuracies.
For some time now, we haven’t been unheard. Just two years ago, no-one was writing about ESA at all, other than to remind the public that we were all scroungers who could be working. Now, the Guardian, the Mirror, the Independent, Private eye, Political Scrapbook, Left wing blogs and even the Spectator are running regular stories about the failures of ESA and the WCA. Channel  4 have run some fantastic sections on the failures of ESA and even the Daily Mail have allowed blogs about ESA written by the indomitable Sonia Poulton. 

Slowly but surely, things are changing. Bit by bit we are [persuading those that matter to persuade the public that we are right and the government are wrong. 

It is frustratingly slow. The public have to read things many times over before they accept them and we still have a long way to go. But things are totally different now to two years ago and momentum is building in our favour.
  •          ESA had cross party support. There was almost total political consensus that it was good policy.
From my own point of view, this is what I most wanted to change and the thing I’ve worked hardest on. All the time we still have a Labour party blind to the suffering of sick and disabled people, they are not a Labour party. It has been achingly slow with disappointments and faux-pas at every stage. It pains me that I have had to drag Labour to every concession kicking and screaming, that some in the party still think ESA is right. It hurts me to remember some of the judgemental speeches and thoughtless, unfounded coalition policies they originally supported. 

But as I wrote here Labour have made real steps in the past year to put the mistakes of ESA behind them. They are now saying they are listening and travelling the country discussing sickness and disability policy with those actually affected. They have laid out a set of “rights” they believe sick and disabled people should be able to rely on and they have admitted ESA is a mess and isn’t working . Byrne’s Beveridge 2 speech was a turning point in which Labour started to dare to say the word disability again. I DO believe Labour are listening. They realise that we face very grave threats, that we are not just the usual suspects making a fuss. It’s up to us to tell them what we need. We can’t sit at our keyboards complaining then refuse to say what we want. 

The EDM raised by John McDonnell was signed by 114 MPs and became the 3rd most signed EDM Every day a new Labour MP or even a Lib Dem or Conservative join the growing chorus of MPs opposed to WCAs. Again, it’s slow and it’s frustrating, but we’re getting there. 

It is also now Lib Dem policy to oppose WCAs despite their actions. This might not help now, but could come in very handy in the event of a future Lib/Lab coalition,

Once the political consensus is broken, it gets much harder for the government to get away with leaving ESA a shambles. 

Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review, has promised to make sure anything we send to Liam Byrne and Anne MacGuire goes to the very heart of discussions over future policy. I believe him because he’s a good guy who’s written articles about sickness and disability that sound just like mine. He is a politician who really understands our issues. 

I honestly believe we have a chance if we just make sure we tell Labour what they have to do and keep the pressure on them to do it. 

But we have to tell them.
  •          It’s pointless expensive and unnecessarily distressing to constantly re-assess those with disabilities so severe and profound that they will never work.
(Dealt with under delays and appeals above)
  •          The help & support politicians say people with serious illnesses and disabilities will get to find work is totally inappropriate and ineffective. It conflates disability benefits with JSA (Jobseekers Allowance) Most people who lose ESA have not found work.
As I’ve argued here and here it is no good sorting out all of the problems above if there is no work sick and disabled people can actually get or do. The work provision is woefully inadequate, the system is not going to make work pay for us and we need to totally re-design the help and support government provide. If you can take part, please leave your comments below the articles and let politicians know what you need to work and what that work should be
  •          The public were unaware of all these faults and generally thought ESA was a good policy.
Sadly, this is the area where we still have the most work to do. Most people still don’t know what’s happening and disability is not an issue they think about often or that interests them much. If we are sitting around waiting for people to wake up and say “Oh, this is terrible, we have to stop it!” they aren’t going to do that any time soon. Think how long it took for Tom Watson to expose phone hacking?  It took years to spill over into genuine public outrage. There isn’t going to be a revolution.
All we can do is chip away, every day, telling more and more people, getting them to tell even more people. Slowly but surely, opinion will change.
If you look at all I’ve written above, we’re well on the way to winning most of the points above. If we haven’t won, we’re at least at the place where we’ve won a seat around the table. We’ve made massive progress since 2010 and the truth is that with new descriptors, accessible centres staffed by respectful courteous experienced staff, more paper assessments taking place, higher support group and WRAG numbers a commitment from Labour to make rights a reality for disabled people and to really listen to what we need we have all the ingredients of success. With Atos claiming that they are willing to improve assessments  implement the Harrington changes and allow assessments to be recorded we’ve come a huge way in two years.
Of course we still have a long way to go, of course it isn’t enough but I think it shows for itself how successful a strategy of engagement and lobbying can be. We would have achieved none of this without sustained and often boring small changes, bit by bit, day by day, chipping away at everything that is warped and wrong with ESA. The government become more and more isolated by the day as the BMA, every main charity, Atos, the press and the opposition parties edge further and further away from supporting ESA.
This might not be the way everyone would do business but I don’t care about saving face or an ultimate glorious win that may never come.
I want to ACTUALLY win and that means compromise, boring detail, hard work and disappointments.
The proof of the pudding will be ESA in 2015. Tragically that will be too late for many, but better to win slowly but surely than to never win at all.
First published at Diary Of A Benefit Scrounger.

30 thoughts on “What’s the state of ESA?”

  1. You are clueless u dont realise with yr benefits u are much better off than working. Your maths fail to take into account that with a salary u have to pay tax yes yr benefits are tax free if u hadnt noticed. also u dont get a free house and free council tax etc if u work so….why bother working??!!

    public support for sanctions is increasing?? u bet and more to come. best way stop the benefits then you left with a choice of getting a job and working and looking after yourself or doing nothing and seeing the consequences. how do u think ppl in china, brazil etc survive?

    1. Some facts for you, although given your level of spelling and grammar I realise that facts might be a difficult concept.

      Job Seeker’s Allowance and Employment Support Allowance ARE taxable.

      The total level of benefits paid including housing benefit and council tax benefit is still below the minimum wage that most people could earn.

      People receive sickness and disability benefits because they CANNOT work and they get Job Seeker’s Allowance because there ARE NO JOBS. We are not China or Brazil, we are in the UK which is the seventh richest country in the world and it is the mark of a civilised society that we look after those who need it. If you want to put yourself in the category of not civilised then you’re not much of a person.

      1. what about dealing with those ppl who simply DONT WANT to work b/c trust me there are millions like them in this country. what do u suggest is done about them? its human nature isnt it if you can get something for nothing u will always go for that option.

        if 1.2 million eastern europeans are employed here how can you then say there is no jobs? or more accurately there are no jobs that are worth me giving up my benefit for. that more the truth?

        1. There are not millions of people who don’t want to work, that is a lie spread by the Daily Mail and politicians. I quote recent research by the Rowntree foundation who tried very hard to find families where three generations had not worked or who didn’t want to work.

          “If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere.”

          Last time I checked there were 2.5 million people unemployed, while there were less than half a million job vacancies. Most of these vacancies are part time or they are filled by recruiting people who are already employed elsewhere, and it’s what you would expect as a natural turnover of jobs. However you look at it, more than 2 million people cannot get a job as things stand.

          1. so explain how 1.2 million eastern europeans can be employed here why arent these jobs being done by Brits?? if brits did these jobs these people wouldnt come pls explain that?

          2. Think carefully. If 1.2 million brits suddenly decided they wanted those jobs currently filled by Eastern Europeans, how would they get them? Not to mention that many of those jobs are part time or seasonal and people can’t live on them as a primary wage earner.

          3. not at all ask yrself this how did those 1.2 million get the jobs in the first place?? if they can live on that wage why cant brits? why didnt brits bother applying for them? perhaps too lazy ask any employer they say the ‘immigrant’ work much harder and more reliable than the brits. what does that say about the state of the nation?

            u really think everyone is keen on working? u must be joking. as said if u can get something for nothing ppl will go for that option when its better off than getting a job. a lot of ppl arent even turning up for their benefit medicals because they know the game is up why waste everyones time so they go and get a job simples! the way it should be.

            if u hammer the taxpayer too much yes those ppl that pay yr benefit then they will simply leave and go elsewhere as is happening in france then where will yr benefit come from??

          4. I said right from the start that facts wouldn’t mean much to you. If you think that the reason people don’t get to their work capability assessment is because “the game is up” then you haven’t even read the article that you are commenting on. People who are too sick to face the assessment aren’t getting jobs, they are homeless and dying. Actual verifiable deaths.

          5. as i said from the start u arent answering the facts either explain how 1.2 million eastern europeans got jobs here in the first place why arent brits doing those jobs?? these are 1.2 million ‘verifiable’ ppl doing jobs that brits should be doing why arent they?? you are dodging the question on that point. pls just explain that before looking at the benefits bounty we have in this country. that partly explains how 1.2 million foreigners can get work easily here.

        2. You’re trying hard to make yourself look really ignorant! First you lump all benefit claimants together, then you back down with the “don’t want to work” statement. People who are looking for work are being sanctioned for making genuine mistakes so how do you think the DWP is treating those who don’t bother? You stated yourself that there are 1.2 million Eastern Europeans working here, that’s if your figures are correct? That must mean that there are 1.2 million less jobs on the market you muppet!

          1. u’re the only muppet here none of u are answering the question why are 1.2 million eastern europeans WORKING here in the first place?? why didnt lazy Britsh apply for those jobs in the first place u muppet??!!

            If LAZY brits got off their arse and applied for those jobs then the Eastern europeans wouldnt be here in the first place.

            Now whose the muppet purplehart for dodging the question and giving excuses for the infectious british laziness where ppl ask what benefit can i get not what job or thing i can do to improve myself.

            how sad.

    2. We are clueless? How is someone with Parkinsons or early onset dementia got any choice whether they work? And how exactly does a 20yr old person with Down’s Syndrome & learning disabilities meant to look after themselves? Do you really want this country to be like China or Brazil, with their wonderful human rights records? If that were the case, it wouldn’t just be people on benefits who would be in deep shit!

  2. I am in total agreement that the support group criteria are ridiculously narrow. They exclude the great majority of long-term, incurable, chronic and disabling conditions where engaging in work related activities would cause distress, anxiety, depression, pain and exhaustion, for example. These symptoms are not taken into account. They should, in my opinion, be included as eligibile for the support group. There are instances where people simply couldn’t cope with the job centre interviews, yet alone the work activities, either because they can’t cope or function due to mental health issues or these activities would cause too much pain to endure for any length of time. I read that work programme providers don’t take the special needs of people with illness/disability into account at all. That a lot of people in fact, are being sanctioned simply for complaining when members of staff have been rude or insulting towards them.

    Being placed in the WRAG not only limits the claimant to only 365 days of income when they’ve no realistic chance of short-term recovery, but also completely cuts them off from potential specialist advice and support, further isolating them from the workplace. This proves to me that ESA was never designed to help people towards work. If it was, where are the therapists to provide the correct level of support for mental health conditions? The psychological therapies, pain management, CBT, required to support people towards health and work? There are no baby steps back to health and work here, it’s straight into the deep end. What about offering people free education whilst they’re too sick to work, so that when they are recovered, or not, as the case may be, they can regain their self-esteem and worth and sense of purpose, and are better placed to find work when they are ready?

    I feel at present as if I’m holding my breath, hoping for some relief the moment this government are booted out and the next one replaces the work capability assessment with a fair and humane system. How I hope! I know that changes won’t happen overnight and that we’ll have to fight for every one of them. Especially when prejudice and ignorance abound, thanks to all the misinformation from government and their gutter press tabloid supporters in recent years. It simple cannot continue like this, and I’ll not give up until we have a fair system for everyone in the UK who falls ill or becomes disabled and needs support.

  3. My mate’s an optician and he tells me its the people on benefit who buy the most expensive glasses and they get their tests for free!! Whereas those in work can only afford the cheapest frames. Go figure that one out.

    Also another mate who fits for Sky, he says practically all the ppl he does installations for are one parent families on benefit and they all get the top packages!! Well considering a single parent with 2 kids gets £500 a week tax free from HMG they can afford it. £26k benefit cap u having a laugh most working ppl dont get anywhere near that when tax and NI is taken off etc

    1. Dean and Fred are prime examples of what happens when the vote is given to those who cannot adequately understand it, “my mate said”, “my dog said” “read it on a crisp packet so it must be true” types.

      Try becoming ill or disabled and living on “handouts”, then tell everyone where jobs are, then try getting rid off east europeans and Chinese working for pittance driving wages down further, resentment and jealousy are not good places to be, add ignorance and hate to that and hey…seventy five years ago a vote for Adolf….this country has enough nazi policies and bleating jealous sheep, if you are really so jealous go get a proper job, stop being so bloody lazy and get an education and stop preaching eugenics

      I so hope fools who spout this crap are next on atos lists for special treatment

    2. God you’re funny! I’m a single mum with a disability & on benefits because of this. I was married so didn’t just decide to have kids I couldn’t afford & I worked till I couldn’t. Do see why you can’t just use generalised labels like “one parent families on benefit”? My parents both worked, I’ve brought my kids up to be productive members of society, both going on to higher education. My son has a job to help support himself through uni! I have Sky. It’s part of my phone & broadband package. Kids cannot study these days without some sort of computer & an internet connection at home. Even schools acknowledge this, often loaning laptops to children who’s family haven’t got a pc at home. Without the benefits I get, my kids would not be on an equal footing with children who’s family can provide these things, preventing them from getting the best education possible & going on to earning a good wage & paying taxes themselves. They also have to work twice as hard because they care for me & help run this home while a lot of kids in this country are sat on their backsides, moaning that they don’t have the latest console or game. I didn’t ask for this & neither did they! Try opening your mind & educating yourself of the real facts before you open your mouth cos believing all this tabloid crap makes you look stupid!

      1. shows what a shambles this country when hard working people have to fund yr lifestyles where u claim to have a disability but are still well enough to bitch and moan online on a computer paid for by someone else.

        welfare reform cant come soon enough just stop the £190 billion madness that it has become. if welfare was stopped you would stop moaning purplehart and get a job, you would have no choice as muggins like us wouldnt be funding yr Sky etc

          1. I worked – hard and with a good salary, drove a nice car and lived in a nice house I bought with my husband, paid my taxes and my NI … oh how I wish I was there now – I am now in constant pain and have several debilitating conditions. My savings are gone and the benefits I have just about keep me and my daughter going – though we wouldn’t have had a Christmas dinner unless my Mum hadn’t contributed…. and you think I would rather be where I am now than where I was?? Get a sodding grip …

          2. why dont u ask the family in kent how they are screwing the system then you can do the same?? clearly you are missing out when everyone else is cashing in!

        1. Haha, ignorant troll! I deal with scum like u on a daily basis. No-one paid for my pc, it’s 2nd hand from a member of my family, so like the other’s u look stupid, lol! By the way, if you’re so jealous of my so called “lyfestyle”, you’re welcome to my wheelchair, crutches & medical procedures. U people are hilarious, I just posted this on facebook so thousands more can laugh at your petty attempt to troll me, feckin funny, I’m gonna enjoy their reaction to this, lmao!

          1. hope IDS wipes the smile off yr face in the new year when finally we have a Govt. that decides to reward those that work rather than those that choose not to and more so laugh at those fools who work.

            come on IDS stop the benefits then you wont be laughing anymore will you? time for the workers to fight back and have the last laugh!

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