[…]

Thousands of chronically ill and disabled people are being let down by the medical tests for the Government’s new disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, reports the BBC. Citizens Advice has criticised the tests as “crude” and pointed to the startling statistic that 68% of claimants are being found fit for work. The independent advice website Benefits and Work reports that of the remaining 32% of claimants, 23% are placed in a ‘work-related activity group’ – meaning they have to attend regular interviews with the aim of getting them back to work. Only 9% of claimants so far have been placed in the ‘support group’, which is the equivalent of the old Incapacity Benefit. Considering ESA replaces a benefit which had an extremely low fraud rate as it was*, these percentages expose the new system as shockingly harsh.

The test which makes the decision about fitness for work is called the Work Capability Assessment, and it is carried out by a private company called Atos, not by the DWP itself. Standard questions are asked and the assessor – who is often not a doctor – fills in boxes on a computer database, which then calculates the claimant’s ‘points’ (a certain number of points must be achieved before a claimant can be found unfit for work).

Citizens Advice spokesperson David Harker had this to say about it (via the BBC):

“The people that we talk to talk about something done very speedily, often no eye contact being made with the applicant, and the person staring at the computer screen asking very, very rigid questions. Seriously ill and disabled people are being severely let down by the crude approach of the Work Capability Assessment.”

Indeed both the assessment and the application forms are based on simple tasks such as walking very short distances or lifting the arms above the head; tasks which have no bearing on a person’s ability to do even a part time job, let alone a full time week of 35 hours’ work, and are completely irrelevant to conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The tests are not sensitive enough to fluctuating conditions or mental illnesses, say the CAB, and, reports the Guardian, “do not properly recognise the effects of pain and exhaustion”. I agree – I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could assess a person’s ability to work for seven hours a day, five days a week, based on brief, single performances of very basic physical tasks.

None of this will be news to anyone suffering from a chronic illness or disability, who has had to rely on state benefits for income. At the time ESA was announced, the Government insisted that hundreds of thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit would be ‘liberated’ from a life dependent on the welfare state. However the Government simply deciding that it disapproved of a life on welfare, or no longer wanted to pay for these benefits, funnily enough did not make illness and disability magically disappear. The result of this cost-cutting attempt, this goalpost-moving exercise, was always going to be what we are seeing now – thousands of chronically ill and disabled people being told unfairly that they can work, with all the consequences such as stress and poverty that brings, and thousands more appeals and tribunals which will end up costing the DWP more money, not less.

Sadly, although the DWP has made vaguely reassuring noises about addressing the CAB’s concerns, Work and Pensions minister Yvette Cooper has announced that soon, existing Incapacity Benefit claimants (whose claims began before ESA was introduced) will start to be herded onto ESA. She is still talking about this benefit in terms of it being a liberating force, not the punitive measure that it is.

Disabled people have so much to deal with already – with our medical conditions, with reduced access to the world, with prejudice from society, with bullying and intimidation, with increased risk of domestic abuse – and now evidently with a Government that refuses to accept its responsibility to support us financially if needs be. There is no shame in needing support – benefit claimants for the most part are not scroungers – but there is plenty in not providing it to those in need.

*Figures can be found here (direct link to Word document).