‘Is the new disability benefit working?’, BBC Radio 4, 20 December 2011 at 8pm

December 20, 2011


From the BBC News website, 20 December 2011 (story by Helen Grady, producer, BBC Radio 4's ‘Can You Touch Your Toes?' programme.

Employment minister Chris Grayling says he is confident glitches in the system used to decide who is fit to work have been fixed. Two years after the new ‘work capability test' was introduced, what's it like for those who go through the assessment?

Katherine Lass often feels self-conscious using her wheelchair in public.

“Often you get people looking at you as if to say, you can't be disabled. You're too young to be disabled,” she said.

At 27, Katherine is one of the country's top wheelchair badminton players and a regular at live action role-play festivals, where she and her boyfriend act out scenes from Dungeons and Dragons games.

“We're not saying that there shouldn't be a test to ensure that people are genuine claimants,” said Dave Skull from the mental health group, Mad Pride.

“But none of this is about actually helping people to get back into work.

“It's really all about cutting the benefits bill. It's a mechanical tick box process.”

Employment minister Chris Grayling insists there are no targets and says the system is about transforming lives by helping people back to work.

“What we have in this country is more than two million people on incapacity benefit, many of whom have been on it for years and years and years,” he says.

“Effectively the system has said, ‘you're on benefits, we'll write you off for the rest of your life'. And I just don't think that's good enough.”

Atos won the contract to assess new claimants for employment support allowance under the previous government.

But earlier this year, when the old incapacity benefit was phased out, Chris Grayling decided to get Atos to reassess those claimants too.

Shortly after her assessment, Katherine received a letter from the DWP telling her that she had been found fit for work. She scored zero points in her assessment. Claimants generally need 15 points or more to qualify for employment support allowance.

“When I got the medical report, I had to check it was my name and National Insurance number on the front,” said Katherine.

“It was so inaccurate that I honestly thought they'd sent me someone else's by mistake.

“One of the things that really got to me was from the physical examination.

“It said that all my movements appeared pain free even though I had cried out in pain several times during the assessment.”

Katherine appealed against the decision and took her case to a benefits tribunal.

Sleepless nights

There she was awarded 30 points and so qualified for employment support allowance – though she will have to be reassessed in six months.

Mr Grayling says the system has been improved since Katherine was assessed in January.

A rolling review has been put in place and he has given DWP staff greater freedom to over-rule the advice of Atos assessors.

But the tribunal system is clogged up with appeals against decisions made before the reforms and extra judges have been hired to try to clear the backlog.

The cost of the appeals is thought to be between £50m and £80m.

And even successful claimants say the system needs further fine-tuning.

Vic Shipsey is registered blind and was found unfit for work after being assessed in August – months after the system was improved.

He said: “At 58 and with my eye problems, it's a bit late for me to start looking for new trades.

“If they had only asked my eye surgeon, he could have told them that without me having to go through a medical examination.

“It was a very stressful and worrying time. I had a few sleepless nights. I don't see why it should be so stressful for genuine people.”

Mr Grayling says he is “very confident” that the number of decisions being overturned on appeal will fall as a result of improvements to the assessment system.

“I happen to think that the system we inherited from the previous government was flawed,” he says.

“It was too impersonal, it didn't do the job properly.

“I'm very confident that with a much more human touch as the whole process goes through, we'll have something where the decisions are more robust.”


PROGRAMME INFORMATION
‘Can You Touch Your Toes?', presented by Anita Anand, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Tuesday 20 December.


As she walks around her car and puts together her wheelchair, it's easy to see why some people might do a double-take. At first glance, Katherine looks fit and able.

But with fibromyalgia and ME, she says she is not capable of holding down a job and is one of many thousands of people claiming employment support allowance – a form of benefit paid to those who are medically unfit for work.

“I can do things in short bursts,” Katherine told BBC Radio 4.

“But the way the fibromyalgia and ME affect me means that I can't do things repeatedly over a long period.

“Most jobs involve an eight-hour shift and I can't do that. I just get too tired.”

‘Too crude'

In order to qualify for employment support allowance, people like Katherine have to be assessed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

After filling in a form, most claimants are asked to attend a “work capability assessment”.

These are carried out by the private company, Atos, which is paid £100m a year to produce medical reports on claimants' fitness for work. The reports are used by the DWP to help decide who qualifies for benefits.

Atos has been criticised by disability campaigners who say the system they use is too crude to deal fairly with people with complex health problems.

6 thoughts on “‘Is the new disability benefit working?’, BBC Radio 4, 20 December 2011 at 8pm”

  1. Didn’t take too long for people to start attacking me (I’m the Katherine featured in the BBC article, though they misspelled my surname!). I’m awaiting my comments there to be modified so hopefully they’ll appear there soon. I have pointed out that the article doesn’t include everything, presumably because of a word limit. I do wish people would wait to listen to the programme first, but the cynic in me says that that would be asking too much. I’m sure it’ll be mentioned in the report that I do some voluntary work, that I’ve applied for loads of part-time jobs but I always get rejected on the grounds that there was someone else with more experience, that I have to pace myself, etc.

    Sorry, just wanted to vent a little.

  2. As I said on FB Katherine (though before I had read your comment above admittedly) I think it takes a lot of courage to put yourself up for something like this.

    There will always be idiots out there I am afraid and yes, some from within the ‘community’ (which makes me especially mad).

    I take it then you weren’t afforded a copy of the programme prior to it being aired? Well whatever way it is presented or received by some, you have done a great thing I think.

  3. I just wanted to say that At this moment I am going though my second ESA assessment, during the first assessment I became so overwhelmed emotionally when my medical got counselled at the the last minute and I couldn’t cope with the stress of it being re-scheduled and having to wait again for the horror of it to take place (Its a very complicated story) that I took an overdose and ended up in intensive care, I was put on the support level on ESA for 4 1/2 months and now am being reassessed again, I have both ME and POTS, I am very limited in what I can do, I get overwhelming fatigue, exhaustion, joint pains (also have fibromyalgia) and because of the POTS I suffer daily with frequent pre-syncope episodes and often with syncope episodes, plus I now struggle with my emotional health as well, although all the mental health people I have seen say that it is the difficulties of coping with my physical health problems that course the emotional lability.

    I have written to my MP on many occasions and told him the full story of my ESA encounters and how wrong, how stressful and how inappropriate, I believe this assessment is. All the replies I have had are the same, saying that this is a fair and “sorted out” process, that the government are not doing it just to save money. They don’t listen, they don’t want to know the misery, pain and distress they are coursing to the sick and disabled, I shall sent off my second ESA form tomorrow 4 1/2 months after the last one, nothing much has changed in that 4 1/2 months, my health is worse because of all the stress, but I haven’t gotten better, but the government is not interested, they only want to stop as many people as possible from qualifying for benefit, so as to save money, it has nothing to do with this lie that they don’t think people should be left to rot on benefit, If I was not sick the last thing I would want is to be unable to work,

    I would love more than anything to get back to my career of a nursery nurse, working with children, I loved my job and I hate being sick and disabled, at 50 I live a more limited life than some of my 90 year old neighbours, this is not my choice. I am too sick to work, I also cannot cope with the extra pressure that ESA and soon PIP puts on me having to prove every few months that I am really genuinely sick, the government, DWP, and ATOS are nothing but bullies, this system is worse than the work houses of the Victorians.

    Katherine you are in my thoughts you are not alone, I hope all goes well for you.

  4. Katherine thankyou for being brave enough to do this program, and I hope the stupid comments are outweighed by supportive ones.
    Tabatha, your story is so sad and shocking, and I fear all too typical of what really ill people are being put through by this merciless government. Do please try and remember that there ARE people who care, however bleak things are at present. Easy to say, I know, and it doesn’t help your immediate financial situation, but I think that slowly the reality of this awful state of affairs is being more publicised, though I know too that for every helpful program or story, the vested interests produce a negative one…
    If you dont already know it, look at “diaryofa benefitscrounger/blogspot” a wonderful woman with very severe Crohn’s disease who posts regulary and good links to other sites. you will at least feel less alone in your suffering, ad there is a good sense of solidarity and outrage in the comments. Also, most importantly, they are working as hard as their poor health allows, to change things, so let’s try and have a bit of hope… try not to despair.

  5. Can I just add the following link to my previous comment in which i referred to this very good site and the action she is taking which may help all of us:

    http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/

    The latest posting there suggests a gathering momentum of publicity which may make it impossible for MPs like Tabatha’s to continually ignore our pleas when they just churn out the same old lies in their replies to us. something’s gotta change!!

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