“I felt it was assumed that I was lying. It was more like a police officer cross-questioning a suspected offender than someone looking at my health and welfare and mental condition.”
MPs on the work and pensions select committee were in Burnley on Monday listening to the views of benefit claimants who have been part of a pilot for a new test designed to filter those people able to work from those who are too sick or disabled to do so.
If they expected positive accounts they will have been disappointed. Speaker after speaker at the public meeting at Burnley football club gave negative accounts of their experience of being tested for eligibility for the new employment support allowance, the replacement for incapacity benefit, which is to be introduced nationwide from the start of next month.
About 50 people attended the highly charged, emotional meeting. Most did not introduce themselves by name but simply with a brief description of the nature of their medical condition, and their accounts provided MPs with a detailed picture of what it feels like to undergo the work capability assessment (WCA) – the new computer-led test.
The test has been vigorously criticised by charities such as Citizens Advice and by a government-commissioned independent review, saying that the process is impersonal, and ill-equipped to gauge the seriousness of mental health conditions, or the nuances of complex medical problems.
One by one, individuals outlined the difficulties they had experienced. “I just seemed to be a number. The health professional didn’t know what one of my conditions was,” one man said.
“It was a complete farce,” a second man said. “They asked: How did you get here? How are you going to get home? Do you shop? Do you bathe yourself? But not how does it hurt? Where did it hurt? None of that. “I’ve got arthritis in my legs, my knees, my shoulders.”
“My wife scored zero points,” another said. “The test was a total waste of time; it was all physically orientated, nothing about her mental state. They asked things like ‘Can you brush your teeth?’ How that relates to mental health issues is beyond me. It was overthrown at tribunal. I can only describe it as mental torture; she was a mental wreck after it.”
Paul Hogarth, from the local Citizens Advice Bureau, said the system had been widely portrayed as a process of “rooting out the shirkers”, but argued that the test was not fit for purpose, frequently declaring people with serious health conditions fit for work. The advice centre had supported many people to tribunals, 80% of whom had seen the assessor’s decision overturned, he said.
Among those who successfully appealed was Ean Williams, 45, who told MPs that he had originally been given zero points in his assessment, despite having multiple sclerosis, and providing a letter from a surgeon stating he was too ill to work.
To qualify for the benefit, claimants need to be awarded 15 points.
“I’m sure that some people do scam the system, but why were they targeting me? I have hard medical evidence saying I had MS,” he said.
Kevin Nuttall, a welfare rights adviser working with Action for Blind People in Lancashire, said he had supported someone through a test which concluded that he had “mild visual impairment” and was fit for work. “He was in fact registered blind,” he said.
Over the next three years 1.5 million people currently claiming incapacity benefit will undergo the work capability assessment, carried out by a medical and IT company, Atos. The new test is tougher than the old version, and the government expects to save £1bn over five years by encouraging people into work, or failing that on to a lower-paid benefit.
Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire, asked whether it was not a good thing that people with mental health problems were being helped into work. “Isn’t it about changing attitudes? Trying to find out what are the capabilities of that person – and shouldn’t that person be able to use their talents?” he asked.
There was loud disagreement from the hall. “But the work capability assessment isn’t like that. It’s hostile,” one man said. One woman described the frustration of trying to get in contact with the Atos headquarters to query her assessment result, stating she had dialled the number “about 125” times. “There’s a recorded voice saying, Sorry, all our advisers are busy. And the line goes dead.”
Others said the large number of appeals meant a long wait for cases to be heard, and in the meantime they were allocated the lower rate of benefit, £65 a week, rather than £91. “I am waiting for a tribunal, but I’m told that it won’t be before June, because there are so many people waiting. I’m stuck on the £65 benefit until then,” a woman with ME said, and began to cry.
The chair, Dame Anne Begg (Labour, Aberdeen South), said this was the first time in her nine years on the committee that MPs had ventured out and talked to real people. “We should do this kind of thing more,” she said.
Afterwards she said she was concerned about the speed with which the reform was being pushed through: “Personally, I see there are serious problem with the WCA. My view is that either they should be slowing down the national rollout or speeding up the implementations of changes to the system.”
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