“He actually said, ‘you’re a doctor, you could do my job’. I couldn’t, Not morally I couldn’t. They’re not doctors. They are agents of the state enforcing a system.“
TESTS FOR EMPLOYMENT AND SUPPORT ALLOWANCE ‘HUMILIATING AND DEGRADING’
First published Wednesday, 03 August 2011
When the number claiming they were too ill to work topped two million, the last Labour government decided enough was enough. They introduced radical reforms designed to get people off benefit and into jobs.
These are tests carried out by a French company, Atos Healthcare. Those deemed fit move onto Jobseekers’ Allowance and are expected to find work.
On one level, the reforms have succeeded. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that, of the 1.33 million people who have applied for ESA, 39 per cent were found to be fit for work.
A third dropped their claim before it was decided. Seventeen per cent were judged capable of doing some work. Just seven per cent were so unwell they could not work at all.
But critics claim the system is humiliating and degrading.
That view has been reinforced by the House of Commons Work and Pensions committee.
Its report, published last week, says that work-capability assessments are causing “fear and anxiety” among vulnerable and disabled people and that Atos Healthcare’s service is “below standard”. The MPs suspect that the Government is using the scheme to save money.
Gill Thorburn, a 57-year-old mother of two from Oaklands Drive in Upperby, Carlisle, was turned down for ESA and is waiting to appeal. This time last year she was working as a cleaner having just completed a social sciences degree at the University of Cumbria.
She says: “In September and October I was hospitalised. I couldn’t breathe. I was in five days the first time and then eight days. I was on oxygen both times.
“They diagnosed me with emphysema. The consultant said it will not get better, with care they can stabilise it but it is a degenerative condition. There was no way I could go back to work.”
She applied for ESA and was called to Atos’s offices in Carlisle in January, to be seen by a nurse. The interview lasted 20 minutes. She says: “The only medical test she did was to ask me to breathe into a peak-flow meter. I didn’t see her notes until later. She put that I had a very low peak-flow rate but that my [breathing] technique was poor and the result was likely to be unreliable.
“If she thought my technique was poor, why didn’t she ask me to try again? Her report is all the Department for Work and Pensions has to make their decision on.”
Ms Thorburn has been told that her appeal will not be heard before November, more than a year after she applied for ESA. In the meantime she receives the benefit at the assessment-phase rate of £67.25 a week. This will rise to between £94.25 and £99.85 a week, with arrears backdated, if her appeal succeeds.
She says: “My confidence has taken a knock. When someone says you’re lying – that’s what it amounts to – you feel like a criminal, like a malingerer or scrounger, somebody who wants to get something for nothing. You get paranoid because you think people are thinking that about you.”
Dr Helen Davison, 44, of Rosebery Road, Stanwix, Carlisle, has been through the whole process. She held down a high-flying job as a registrar in public health until she became ill in November 2009.
She says: “I stopped working through pressure and anxiety. I’d gone through a relationship break-up and I’d had to move house. I was struggling with the level of work, it was a combination of things.”
She applied for ESA when her sick pay ran out last summer.
“The questions on the application form were not that relevant to me. They were asking if I could perform basic tasks such as getting up, cooking and shopping. I had real problems with concentration and memory but they didn’t ask about that. There was no way I could go back to my job.
“Although I was surviving, I wasn’t on top of things. I was exercising and socialising, however, because that’s about getting yourself better.
“The rules are that if you manage to get out and do those sorts of things, then you’re fit to work. They don’t take account of the nuances of mental health, that you have good days and bad days. On bad days you hide in bed.”
Her Atos interview was with another doctor.
She recalls: “It was clear he was trying to get me to fit categories in his tick-box system. He wasn’t probing as a doctor would probe to find out information. He didn’t really pick up on what was wrong with me.
“He actually said, ‘you’re a doctor, you could do my job’. I couldn’t, not morally I couldn’t. They’re not doctors. They are agents of the state enforcing a system.”
Dr Davison lost her appeal and is now claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and looking for work.
She adds: “The whole thing has been detrimental to my mental health. It triggered my anxiety again.
“The system is penalising people who are genuinely low. I’m sure there are some who work the system, there always have been. They can probably get around it. This is impacting on the recovery of people who are genuinely ill. It’s inhumane.”
Both women were taking part in a protest in Carlisle today close to the offices of Atos in Carlyle’s Court and those of Carlisle MP John Stevenson.
The demo has been organised by Brent Kennedy, secretary of the Carlisle branch of the Socialist Party.
He argues that the high rate of successful appeals – almost four in 10 – proves the system is flawed. And he claims the success rate rises to 70 per cent when the individual appealing gets professional help, for example from a solicitor at a community law centre.
Mr Kennedy says: “The Government’s cynical argument about helping people off benefits and into work is a sham. The idea that big business will take on the sick and disabled when they can choose from one million able-bodied young unemployed defies reality.
“The financial savings will be minimal when compared to the traumas and poverty inflicted on 1.5m families. This demonisation, together with the fear of humiliating assessments and loss of income is driving more victims to suicide.”
He cites the example of Paul Reekie, the Scottish author and poet who committed suicide last year after his benefits were stopped.
The Department for Work and Pensions defends the system. It argues that, just because an appeal is upheld, it does not necessarily mean the original decision was wrong. New evidence may have come to light.
A spokeswoman said: “The work-capability assessment looks at what kind of work a person may be able to do, if they can no longer do the job they used to.
“People who are disabled and cannot work get extra money and those found able to work will get the help and support they need to find a job. Anyone who disagrees with their assessment can appeal and they will continue to receive support until the appeal is done.”