First published on Wednesday 11 April 2012 14:00
CITIZENS advice staff have seen a dramatic rise in pleas for help from people who are to lose sickness benefits under new “much tougher” Government rules.
And those ruled as being fit for the jobs market included one Hartlepool woman with “severe” back problems who had several plates attached to her spine, while another was a man from the town with acute depression and anxiety.
Hartlepool Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) says at least 10 people a week are contacting them after failing medicals for the all new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is replacing the Government’s old Incapacity Benefit.
This is compared to 12 months ago when between three and five people sought help on the issue, before the new medical tests “really started to bite”.
In total over the last year, the CAB office, in Park Road, has seen 400 town people through its doors, said manager Joe Michna.
The medical – called the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – is a points-based system which has to be taken by all claimants who have received money from the ESA sickness pot for 13 weeks. Points are awarded for problems with walking, sitting, standing, dexterity, communication and mental health problems such as depression.
If the person does not score 15 points or more then they are deemed fit enough for work, however, they can appeal at an independent tribunal, with figures showing that only around 38 per cent successfully overturn assessors’ decisions.
But Mr Michna said people are not told their fate is bound by points scored on their illnesses during the medical until they receive a decision letter, at which point it is too late. He also added that many claimants, even with severe physical and mental disabilities, are being scored zero points, which is “quite worrying”.
He said: “Virtually everybody is being tested and it’s having a significant impact on us being able to assist that many people.
“Some have got severe physical conditions while some have mental health conditions and each individual would argue that their medical condition is valid.
“You need 15 points to be eligible to claim the benefit and we’re getting people with physical and mental limitations that are scoring zero which is quite worrying.
“One woman had plates inserted into her spine and I thought right from the start, how can this lady have zero points? We helped her with an appeal and she won. Another man with severe depression and anxiety also got zero points and he had the decision overturned on appeal.”
He added: “A lot of people have no idea whatsoever of the points system and are therefore failing the assessments. They aren’t told until the decision is made.
“That is wrong. People should be informed right from the start.”
He advised claimants to make notes about how their medical condition affects them, list physical limitations on what they can and cannot do, and ensure that these are brought to the attention of the medical assessor.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “We shouldn’t automatically write off a person’s ability to work, solely on the basis of a health condition or disability.
“That’s why the Work Capability Assessment doesn’t focus on a particular diagnosis, but on the actual abilities of an individual, and whether that person – with the right support – could undertake suitable work.
“People who are too sick or disabled will continue to receive our unconditional support, but those who are able to work will get specialist help through the Work Programme. Everyone has the right to appeal a benefit decision they do not agree with.”