A DAMNING report has condemned the new system of disabled benefits assessments for throwing the most vulnerable people in the country into a state of “financial worry and stress”.
The scathing report from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), which has now been lodged with the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons, says some disabled people are having to wait up to nine months to appeal decisions to strip them of cash.
Disabled rights organisation, charities, pressure groups and politicians have also rallied together to condemn the “chaos” that the new system of is causing.
Figures have also come to light showing 120 people each day successfully appeal against rulings that they are fit to work.
The Government has hired French company Atos to assess if disabled people claiming incapacity benefit and employment support allowance are entitled to payments or fit for work.
Assessments are finding roughly 40% of claimants fit for work. Some 1.9 million disabled people are due to be assessed in the next three years. From this week onwards the system will accelerate to assess a total of 11,000 people a week.
The CAS report shows the system of welfare reform is leading to a huge bottleneck of appeals and a delay in cases reaching tribunal of around six to nine months. CAS says this is “causing considerable financial worry and stress to claimants”.
Dr Eilidh Whiteford, SNP Work and Pensions spokesperson, said: “The system as it currently stands is obviously flawed and must be reviewed immediately to ensure that those genuinely unable to work are not faced with the stress and financial instability of unnecessary assessment.”
Whiteford, MP for Banff and Buchan in Aberdeenshire, the area in which the current system to tackle incapacity benefit was piloted, also added: “I know from cases in my own constituency of people being wrongly assessed, and whose conditions are actually being exacerbated by the process. While welfare reform is of course necessary, we should not forget that we are dealing with the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
CAS says around 70% of its time is spent dealing with employment support allowance claims and appeals. Sunday Herald research has found many people are locked in a seemingly endless cycle of assessment and appeal, in which they are found fit to work, appeal the decision successfully, but then are quickly assessed again by ATOS as fit again. Meanwhile, the actual financial cost of the tribunals, which for the period between October 2008 and June 2009 was £11 million, is estimated to be now something closer to £50m.
Discontent with the system manifested itself last week in a series protests by disability groups, including a 5000-person march in London, and smaller demonstrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Among those protesting were Black Triangle, a Scottish disability rights group, which on Wednesday delivered a letter to the British Medical Association Scotland’s chair, Brian Keighley, asking doctors to condemn the welfare reform as “unjust and profoundly damaging the patient-doctor relationship”.
The BMA has not replied, but a spokesperson said: “The BMA does have concerns that the assessments appear to be very much process-driven and not always able to assess the claimant in a holistic way.”
While it has already been recognised that the system is not perfect, and a rolling review by Professor Malcolm Harrington is already making changes, many groups say these tweaks are not enough. The Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Tom Greatrex, said: “We need to stop, reassess it, get it right. It’s grossly inefficient for the Government as well to have this many appeals going to tribunal.”
Charities and organisations including the Scottish Association for Mental Health, Scope, and Macmillan Cancer Support in Scotland have spoken out against the system.
Dr Robert Moffat of the National Autistic Society Scotland said: “It is clear from the people with autism we speak to that the current system of Work Capability Assessment (WCA) fails to understand the unique challenges faced by people with a hidden disability. It fails to recognise the unique obstacles people with autism face.”
Several of those who spoke out said some degree of welfare reform was necessary. Greatrex said: “I’ve seen people who have been on incapacity for a long time who’ve managed with various different sorts of help – not through this system – to get back to work. So I can see the benefit, not just financially, but in terms of wellbeing. I do feel the idea was right, but the way it has been structured means that it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Since she was at school, 24-year-old Kirsty Rankin has had ME. Currently she is caught in a cycle of being assessed as fit for work, successfully appealing, and then being assessed fit again
I’VE already had two Atos assessments. I had my benefits taken away last year, appealed and won and this year they’ve been taken away again and I’m just going to appeal again. I’ve had ME for about eight years and it takes its toll on your body after a while. You have muscle wasting. I’ve come out for an hour today and that will mean I’ll be flat out for the rest of the day. People will only see the 5% when you’re bubbly, you’re using your energy, it’s your best part. They don’t see you when you’re at home, doused in painkillers and stuck in bed. This is why I get called a liar because I seem perfectly fine right now. It’s just one hour, though, among so many hours when I’m not. I’m in pain a lot of the time. The thing with ME is it affects every single cell in your body, so there are times when just literally everything hurts. I’ve had ME around eight years. I had glandular fever in my sixth year of school, I started going home in my free periods to sleep, and it gradually got worse and worse. In the early days of ME, I did still work. I had several jobs, then as it got worse, I got fired from jobs for not being able to go in, but I didn’t know what was happening to me so I couldn’t claim sickness benefit or anything like that, so it was a case of getting fired from jobs for being too ill, and then I’d try to get another job. Around a year ago I was called into ATOS for a medical assessment. I told the truth and then the assessment came back saying, that, no, they thought I could do these things that I said I couldn’t do and I was not entitled to any benefit. I think probably I won my tribunal because I paid to get all my doctor’s records and I think it was something in there that did it. Of course, I would rather be working and earning my own money. Last month was when I came in for an assessment again, same set-up, same thing, same results. Healthwise, I’m probably exactly the same as I was at the tribunal last year. I can’t imagine what you would have to do for them to say: “No, you’re not fit for work.” And I cannot imagine getting through a day of work without just collapsing with exhaustion.
Jean (not her real name), aged 53, is recovering from cancer and has multiple side-effects from her treatment, yet was assessed as fit to work in six months’ time.
I WAS diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and it was a very malignant large tumour. I had a mammogram and it was worst-case scenario. We live in a climate of fear now. There is a war on disabled people. The thing I keep saying to everyone is this could happen to anybody. This will happen to anybody who actually becomes ill. Up until my diagnosis I was working in administration. My job was very responsible. Because the tumour was so big, they wanted to try chemo first of all, to see if I responded. I massively responded, remarkably. Then I had the lymphectomy and because I had responded well to the first chemo I had a second chemo, with Taxotere, a different drug. It just about killed me. I had one of the worst reactions and the effects have been devastating. I’ve been left with long-term side-effects that can’t be treated. I’ve got muscular myopathy, which means I fall so many times – a side-effect of a dose of steroids I had. But according to the Atos professional I saw, I could return to work within six months. Every question they ask you, though it’s all very innocent, is designed to prove you’re actually living a normal healthy life. It’s things as simple as can you make a cup of tea? Can you watch television? If you can’t watch television and make a cup of tea, you’ve literally got to be paralysed. It is cruel to the point of Nazism. You’re not walking into a medical centre, you’re walking into an interrogation centre. Having that assessment drove me to the point of a breakdown. I’ve been to medicals that are incredibly intrusive and I didn’t think for one second that they would be asking me these questions. I’ve been told it’s unlikely that I’ll be seen for appeal before October 10, because so many people are appealing in desperation. I would love to be back at work. I never have not worked. Sometimes I haven’t liked the work I’ve done, but I’ve always enjoyed the fact that I’ve earned. I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie of other people. Being at home drives me doolally.
Sasha Callaghan, 54, has been involved with disabled rights since 1987. Her teenage son, Harry, has autism and complex learning difficulties.
IT WAS because of my son I had contact with Atos. He is 17 and has autism and complex learning difficulties. I called them because I’d sent his form back and we didn’t hear anything for a while and then we got four letters all saying completely different things. There was one letter saying he was going to have his assessment at Atos, and I thought I’ll phone them and see if I can get any sense out of them. I had heard all these stories about Atos being difficult to deal with and I used to think this is just because the people who are speaking to them aren’t confident. As soon as I spoke to the person from Atos I was disabused of that notion. This woman was just shouting at me: “Bring him to the phone. I want to speak to him.” I said: “I’m the person who speaks on his behalf. My son can’t speak. He can speak but he can’t understand what you’re saying.” We’re now waiting to hear whether he does have to come for an assessment with them. This is somebody who has very complex learning difficulties and for whom employment is never going to be an option. It is remarkable that we’ve got someone with that level of need, sitting and waiting for the letter from Atos to tell us if he needs to come and be assessed to see if he is fit for work.
The founder of Black Triangle, a Facebook disability rights group, McArdle suffers from depression. Last year, after an Atos assessment, he had his benefits cut, and found himself in a downward spiral. He fought and won an appeal which declared him not among those fit to work.
I’VE worked as a journalist, taught English, worked in social care. When I went to the Atos centre for my assessment I saw a registered nurse. She barely made eye contact with me. I answered the questions as honestly as I could, but she just didn’t award the points. Obviously the mental health descriptors, the words for what I was experiencing, weren’t there. The only thing to do, if you want to pass, is to go in and rock like a mental patient and foam at the mouth and maybe scream. The problem is people who suffer from depression are not in a hole all of the time. Even people who know you well, don’t understand it. My dad doesn’t understand depression. He thinks it’s weakness. I appealed and the process was a nightmare, though I did win it in the end. But before that they put me on a reduced rate and I already had outgoings being deducted from my benefit for non-payment of council tax. Instead of having £93 a week, I ended up trying to survive on £44 a week. There were times when I didn’t have enough money for the electricity meter. It was last June that I read on the Bella Caledonia website about Paul Reekie, who committed suicide, and just left two letters on his table, one that his incapacity benefit was being stopped and the other that his housing benefit was stopping. I thought: “Something’s got to be done.” Then I blogged and I set up Black Triangle as a Facebook page, as I felt there was a need for somewhere pooling information about welfare rights and reform. Setting up Black Triangle has really energised me. I still have low days, though. I’ve been out of circulation three days this week. Proper risk assessments haven’t been done to this policy. It’s going to do a lot of damage to people who are already ill and sabotage any hope of a recovery that many of them have.
George Lamb, 47, has a rare genetic condition called Moebius Syndrome, a congenital neurological disorder. He arrived for this interview in a wheelchair and is mobility impaired. Currently he is awaiting an appointment for assessment.
THE majority of health professionals have not heard of Moebius Syndrome, so when I go for my assessment, there’ll be no point because they won’t have a clue. It’s not clear how much my impediments are directly caused by this condition, how much by other factors like wear and tear, but I think in the DWP’s view, I would probably fall into one of the general categories like mobility impaired, or in the Daily Mail categorisation I’d be a “fat, lazy bastard”. My last job was as a community education worker in north Edinburgh. I was running a course that I’d designed, looking at why people do or don’t identify as being disabled. In the end I wasn’t well enough to continue. I would put trying to get the money for travel down as a contributing factor to the rising levels of stress I began to experience at work. In the end, I did not have the ability to stay well enough for long periods. It meant that I jumped before I was pushed. I’m convinced that they’re going to say when I go to Atos that I am already doing the equivalent of working and therefore I should get a job. I expect to receive the envelope at some point. Then I’ll go through the appeal system. The problem with the assessment is that it’s not about your ability to maintain a job, it’s about a random assortment of tasks that having been completed once, that somehow equals you to being able to randomly repeat those tasks at any time during the day or night for the rest of your life.
Father-of-two Matt Wheatley has multiple sclerosis. He worked from when he left school at 15, starting out in the parts division of Edinburgh Corporation and later finding a career in Citizens Advice management and charity work, until his symptoms made him unable to continue.
I GOT the diagnosis for MS a long time ago, and then I recognised that there had been a lot of things that had happened to me that were caused by it. For instance, once I jumped a small wall, about 2ft high, and I went down flat on my face. I went through a lot of trauma before I stopped working. Work is what gives you your identity and so my focus was on holding on to that employment, getting aids, getting hours cut, getting responsibilities taken away from me. I had to be told that I couldn’t work any more. In the end, though, I came to understand that employment, although it’s important, it isn’t your identity. I hadn’t really changed, I was still me. It was quite a time of adjustment and I did get depressed. I haven’t had the assessment yet. It’s coming. I have no illusions about how it will go for me, and I’ll just face it when it happens. Hopefully I’ll have enough stamina to get as positive an outcome as I can get.
THERE are three different rates of Disabilty Living Allowance depending on how much care is needed – £73.60, £49.30 or £19.55 a week.
Mobility allowance is paid at one of two different rates depending on the level of disability – £51.40 or £19.55 a week.
There are three rates of incapacity benefit, varying between £71.10, £84.15 and £94.25 a week.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is £65.45 for a single person and £102.75 for a couple.
If claimants are aged under 25, ESA is paid at a basic rate of £51.85.