Northern Ireland | Stormont consults on fitness-to-work benefit assessments | 14 August 2012

August 15, 2012

From BBC News in Northern Ireland, 14 August 2012

Views are being sought by Stormont on people's experience of the government's fitness-to-work benefit assessments.

Those claiming employment and support allowance, formerly known as incapacity benefit, are having their status reviewed.

It is part of a government drive to get more people into work and reduce welfare bills.

The third stage of a UK-wide review of the process is underway, and a report is due in October.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said during previous stages of the review, the public response was limited and it was important that people got across their views.

“It's not just about what went wrong or what you felt was unsatisfactory, it's also about what can be done to make the system better,” he said.

Critics have said the large number of decisions overturned on appeal show the process is flawed and that tests are too impersonal, not medically rigorous enough and the fluctuating nature of some conditions is not sufficiently taken into account.

Under the system, claimants are placed in three categories: those deemed able to work straight away, those considered able to do so at some point in the future with the right help – the so-called work-related activity group – and those judged unable to work and needing unconditional support.

In Northern Ireland, almost a quarter of those on incapacity benefit who have been reassessed were found to be capable of work.

The Department for Social Development says 67% of claimants' appeals are upheld in its favour.

Mr McCausland said the number of successful appeals by claimants did not mean the process was flawed.

“When decisions are overturned on appeal, it's generally not because there was a flaw in the medical assessment – it's because all the additional information that was required from doctors, and other health professionals wasn't there,” he said.

“When decisions are overturned, in virtually every case, four out of five, it's because additional evidence was produced.

“The point is made that it's important to get the information in as early as possible.”

One man's experience of assessment

“I have long-term depression, anxiety, panic attacks with mental problems, I have a degenerative blood disorder and I also get severe breathing difficulties when I get infections.

“When I filled in the assessment form, I had to get extra sheets because I had so much information.

“I was in for over an hour in my assessment. It just didn't feel good. The woman seemed a bit flustered and she was a bit lost when it came to some of my medication and tests for things like arm and leg movement – she didn't seem to be doing it properly.

“One of the tests for mental health was, ‘Can you take 75p away from £1?' – a question like that was very belittling and just made you feel stupid and childish.

“I was told I was awarded no points and was fit for work, so I said straight away that I wanted to appeal – this is now in.

“If they had contacted my GP, they would have been able to back up everything that I'd put on the form.

“It felt more like a company than a medical assessment by someone who knew what they were doing.

“It's a terrible thing to be dependent on somebody else for money to survive, but I've had to get used to this because of my illness. With more money being taken off my benefits, I don't know what I'm going to do.”

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