Martinez brings star quality to fresh assault on coalition’s ‘war on welfare’

Activists are hoping that a new petition – backed by a campaigning disabled comedian – could finally force the government to assess the overall impact of its programme of cuts and reforms to disability benefits and services.

The WOW (war on welfare) petition – which also calls for a free vote for MPs on repealing the Welfare Reform Act – was only launched on Tuesday this week, but by Thursday had already secured more than 5,000 names.

The launch on Twitter was fronted by disabled comedian Francesca Martinez, who has been prominent in speaking out against the cuts and has put her name to the petition.

The WOW petition is the latest attempt to shame the coalition into commissioning an assessment of the cumulative impact of its cuts on disabled people.

Its name and contents were “crowd-sourced” on Twitter by campaigners who wanted to continue the work of Pat’s Petition – fronted by the disabled activist Pat Onions – which secured 63,000 signatures, nearly 40,000 short of the 100,000 needed in one year to be considered for a Commons debate.

Among other demands, the WOW petition calls for an “immediate end” to the much-criticised work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit – and to the use of mandatory “workfare” schemes for some ESA claimants.

The WOW campaigners also want to see an independent inquiry into the impact of the coalition’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

Martinez told Disability News Service that she was “proud to be backing such an important cause”.

She said: “As a disabled person in the media, I want to help give this issue a voice. It’s morally wrong for the government to target those in need instead of saving money by targeting the real causes of this crisis – and close tax loopholes and regulate the financial sector. To me, it’s a human rights issue.”

Martinez said it was “a scary time”, and added: “I’ve read stories of people committing suicides because of losing their benefits and many more people will die as a result of these cuts.

“Ironically, while stating that they want to help disabled people work, the government are actually taking away their independence and making it harder for people to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

“Disabled people have much to offer society but life for many will become about basic survival – and, in one of the richest countries in the world, that is unacceptable.”

She said that, once the 100,000 milestone had been reached, there would be a campaign of lobbying and “other activities” directed at MPs and the media.

She added: “We absolutely understand the need to pressure and cajole our elected representatives and the fact that power is rarely given means it has to be taken.

“We will take the steps necessary to gain justice and restoration of our human rights which this coalition have been abusing.”

Ian Jones, one of the many disabled activists behind the petition, added: “We wanted to reinforce Pat’s message, the point that disabled people everywhere are feeling marginalised, feeling that people aren’t listening to us and feeling that it is not fair.”

Another of the activists said: “The reality is starting to hit home. If we don’t help ourselves, who will help us?”

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Budget benefit cuts are ‘serious threat’ to independence

Hundreds of thousands of disabled people without work are to be hit hard by further cuts to their support, despite the chancellor’s claims in his autumn statement that he was protecting disability benefits.

George Osborne announced this week that he would restrict the annual “uprating” increase in most working-age benefits to just one per cent for the next three years.

He claimed this would not include “disability benefits”, which would increase instead by the rate of inflation, but said it would apply to employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.

This will mean that the main element of ESA – currently £71 – will rise by just one per cent next year, as will the extra element for claimants in the work-related activity group – currently £28.15 – for those disabled people expected to move eventually into jobs.

The extra element for those not expected to take part in any work-related activity – the support component, currently £34.05 – will rise by the rate of inflation, about 2.2 per cent, while the various ESA “premiums” will also rise by at least the rate of inflation.

Osborne said the measures would save a further £3.7 billion in 2015-16, added to the £18 billion a year already slashed from welfare spending under the coalition.

He also announced new budget cuts of one per cent next year, and two per cent the following year, for government departments that have already seen their budgets slashed since 2010, while local authorities will see their central government funding cut by another two per cent in 2014-15.

Only one of 90 backbench MPs who quizzed the chancellor in the subsequent two-hour debate mentioned the impact of the cuts on disabled people.

Osborne again appeared to be trying to drive a wedge between those in and out of work by saying that he needed to be “fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees that their neighbour is still asleep, living a life on benefits”.

He was criticised earlier this year by a disabled Conservative parliamentary candidate when he spoke about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.

Many activists pointed out that there were good reasons why many disabled people would have their blinds or curtains closed early in the morning, related to both their impairments and the crisis in social care.

Disability Rights UK welcomed the protection for disabled people from the very low rises announced for some benefits, but said it was “very disappointed” with a number of other measures in the autumn statement, including the one per cent increase in ESA.

And it pointed to Osborne’s failure to mention social care spending, or provide any extra resources for cash-strapped social services departments, and warned that with the further cuts in government funding for councils it was “inevitable that disabled people and carers will lose help altogether or face ever higher charges for very basic support”.

The only politician who mentioned disability in the Commons debate that followed Osborne’s statement was Labour’s MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who told the chancellor that “passing on a two per cent cut to local government will involve cuts to adult social services across the country, affecting the vulnerable, the disabled and the elderly”.

In reply, Osborne claimed the coalition had provided “billions more for social care”.

The Hardest Hit campaign – a coalition of organisations representing disabled people – said the one per cent rise in working-age benefits had “come at a time when the government’s Work Programme is failing to help disabled people back into work”.

It said that the chancellor’s decision on ESA “would mean a significant cash loss for thousands of disabled people who rely on this money to live their daily lives”, while other below-inflation rises to benefits such as working tax credits and housing benefit would pose “a serious threat” to disabled people’s independence and “a major compromise on quality of life”.

Steve Winyard, a Hardest Hit spokesman, added: “The 1.3 per cent portion of ESA claimants securing work through the Work Programme is a risible return and reflects not a desire [by] the other 98.7 per cent of claimants to stay in bed, as the chancellor appeared to suggest, but huge inefficiency in Work Programme contracts and ongoing barriers to work for disabled people.”

6 December 2012

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Labour conference: McGuire attacks ‘reprehensible’ failure to assess cuts impact

Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people has attacked the government’s “reprehensible” failure to carry out an assessment of the overall impact of its cuts and reforms on disabled people.

Anne McGuire said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had “refused point blank” to carry out such an assessment, despite the wide range of reforms and reductions in disabled people’s benefits and services over the last two years, such as cuts to social care, employment and support allowance (ESA), disability living allowance (DLA) and housing benefit.

Speaking at this week’s Labour party conference in Manchester, she said: “They are sitting there with more expertise in the DWP than you can shake a stick at.

“We are not the only ones who have asked for it. Disabled people have asked for it. And they are totally ignoring it. I just think that is reprehensible.”

In June, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked Maria Miller, at the time the minister for disabled people, why the government had still not carried out an assessment.

That followed a similar call in a report on disabled people’s right to independent living, by the joint committee on human rights.

McGuire also suggested this week that her party would not scrap the government’s “fitness for work” test if it regained power, despite repeated claims by disabled campaigners that it had caused lasting and serious damage to thousands of disabled benefits claimants.

The work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced in the last 18 months of the Labour government, but disabled activists say it is still fundamentally flawed, pointing to links between the test and health relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths, among those being assessed.

Last month, the mental health charity Rethink published a survey which found that more than eight in ten GPs said they had patients who had developed mental health problems because of the WCA. And in June, the British Medical Association voted to “demand” an end to the WCA because of concerns over its impact on patients.

McGuire said most disabled people accepted that there needed to be an assessment of some kind to determine eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

She said that “the principle of an arms-length assessment is not wrong” but that it needed to be managed properly, and her party was “quite clear” that the WCA “isn’t working”.

She said the government had failed to implement many of the recommendations of the independent reviews of the WCA carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

McGuire is helping to lead a year-long review of the party’s disability policies, which is including a series of round-table discussions across the country – they have taken place so far in Glasgow and Manchester – and “trying to engage with as many disabled people as possible”.

She said there was no point pre-empting the conclusions and recommendations of the review on the WCA. “We have to talk to disabled people and their organisations because they are the ones in the front line on this.”

She said disabled people had “no confidence” in the way the assessments were being carried out by Atos, the government’s private sector contractor, and said there had been “some horror stories” from disabled people assessed by Atos.

But she said that she and her colleagues wanted to receive “concrete” and “chapter and verse” evidence of what was happening with the WCA and Atos.

But McGuire said she did not want to let DWP ministers “off the hook”, because they were responsible for deciding the detailed content of the WCA and the new assessment for personal independence payment, the planned replacement for DLA.

And she said there was a “real, genuine fear out there about what is happening,” with an “across-the-board undermining of the financial support for disabled people”.

She said: “You could be in a position of losing disability living allowance, living in a house that is too big for you [for housing benefit purposes], being taken off ESA [the new out-of-work disability benefit] after a year, the impact [of cuts] on your social care package…”

She said MPs were beginning to see a “significant rise” in the number of disabled people attending their advice surgeries with financial problems.

And she said there was “anecdotal” evidence to suggest that “very few people” were being awarded DLA, six months before the government begins to replace it with the new personal independence payment.

She said: “People are saying it is almost impossible to get DLA at the moment. That has to be challenged with the government, whether or not that is a fact.”

3 October 2012

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Activist’s death highlights ‘cruelty’ of ‘fitness for work’ rules

Anti-cuts campaigners have paid tribute to a disabled activist who died last week after fighting for two years against the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.

Karen Sherlock died on 8 June, just a fortnight after she was told that she would be eligible once again to receive out-of-work disability benefits.

Campaigners say her death is further evidence that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) is unfit for purpose and is causing thousands of disabled people anxiety and hardship, is exacerbating their ill-health and even contributing to some deaths.

Sherlock had several long-term health conditions, including diabetes and a heart condition, was about to start dialysis and was awaiting a kidney transplant, and experienced regular pain, exhaustion, vomiting and incontinence.

In a blog written in April, she described how her employment and support allowance (ESA) had been stopped, and accused the government of “stripping the most vulnerable of the essential benefits they need”.

She added: “Just throw them on the scrapheap. Don’t worry if they can’t feed themselves or heat their homes, or pay for taxis to take them places because they cannot walk anywhere.  No, that doesn’t matter, they are leeches on society.”

Sherlock had been forced out of her NHS job in 2008 because of serious ill-health, and although she was found eligible for ESA – the replacement for incapacity benefit – she was placed in the work-related activity group, for those expected eventually to return to employment.

She was one of the tens of thousands of disabled people whose contributory form of ESA was stopped from 30 April this year, because of the new one-year time-limit introduced under the coalition’s Welfare Reform Act.

She only found out days before she died that her latest appeal had successfully placed her in the support group for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity, and therefore would no longer be affected by the time-limit.

The disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin has pieced together Sherlock’s experiences from emails and blogs she posted between October 2010 and May 2012.

She wrote in a blog that Sherlock had been filled with “confusion, fear and anxiety” because of the assessments, appeals and administrative foul-ups she was put through, and that she felt “caught up in the mill, frustrated, angry and insignificant”.

In a blog on the New Statesman website, fellow disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a friend of Sherlock’s, said she had “battled just to survive” and faced “endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms”.

Marsh has focused her campaigning efforts on the government’s new one-year time limit, which she describes as “an emblem of cruelty that really did cross the line of decency”.

She said Sherlock had been “terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.”

Asked whether Sherlock’s death demonstrated that too many ill and disabled people were being forced through a continuing cycle of assessments and appeals when clearly not fit for work, a spokesman for Chris Grayling, the Conservative minister for employment, said: “I really don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on an individual case like this.”

‘Fitness for work’ test under fire: Campaigners seek judicial review

Campaigners are to ask a judge to declare that the government’s controversial “fitness for work” test is unlawful because it discriminates against people with mental health conditions.

Two people with mental health conditions, both supported by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), will be seeking permission for a judicial review at a hearing on 29 June at the high court in London.

Their lawyers will be arguing that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) fails to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act for people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties.

They want the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to agree to routinely seek medical evidence for such claimants in order to make an accurate assessment of their ability to work.

Currently, many claims are decided on the basis of assessments by healthcare professionals who are not specialists in mental health and have no medical evidence from the claimants’ GPs or consultants in front of them.

A legal victory – if a judicial review is granted and they succeed in their case – will not lead to the WCA being scrapped, but it is hoped that it will make it fairer and less stressful for those with mental health problems and learning difficulties.

Thousands of people with mental distress have been found unfairly fit for work after an assessment, since 2008.

Many go on to win an appeal against this decision, but some are unable to cope with an appeal, or experience a relapse in their health as a result of the appeal process.

The WCA was introduced by the Labour government in 2008 but is now a centrepiece of the coalition’s welfare reforms, and is used to determine eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit (IB).

The WCA has been the focus of a string of protests by disabled activists, who argue that the test is inaccurate, inflexible and damages the health or even contributes to or causes the deaths of some disabled people and those with long-term health conditions.

The MHRN was formed in 2010 by people claiming IB on mental health grounds, who were concerned about the proposed programme to reassess all those on the benefit for their eligibility for ESA.

Many of the network’s members have had relapses, episodes of self-harm and suicide attempts, and have needed higher levels of medication and even hospitalisation in the lead-up to their reassessment.

A DWP spokeswoman confirmed that the government would contest the case, but was unable to say anything further.

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‘Fitness for work’ test under fire: Doctor’s call for action on safety

A GP whose patient tried to kill himself after a “fitness for work” test is urging the government to introduce a way to allow doctors to report such cases to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, says he believes many other GPs have patients who have experienced similar levels of mental distress as a result of being put through the work capability assessment (WCA).

He said that introducing a reporting mechanism – in which GPs could pass details to the DWP – was the only way to build up a picture of the true impact of the WCA.

Disabled activists have been pointing to links between the WCA and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other deaths among those being assessed, but the DWP has so far refused to acknowledge the issue.

Dr Carty, who works in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, spoke out as fellow GPs from across Britain voted unanimously at their annual conference in Liverpool to scrap the tests. They were voting on a motion he had submitted to the annual conference of Scottish GPs in March, which also voted overwhelmingly in favour.

One of his patients, David*, who has bipolar disorder and a heroin addiction, has agreed to his case details being passed to Disability News Service.

Dr Carty had told the DWP last October – as part of David’s DLA claim – that his patient had significant mental health problems, had had a recent heroin relapse and had been suicidal, with an unstable and “very low” mood, and had difficulty dressing, washing and feeding himself.

Dr Carty made it clear to the DWP that he did not think that “the additional burden or threat of withdrawal of benefits would be therapeutic for him, indeed it could be harmful”.

David was subsequently granted DLA for another five years, but was then told that he would be tested as part of the national programme to use the WCA to reassess about 1.5 million people claiming incapacity benefit, and check their eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA).

But the information from his DLA form about the fragile state of his health was not passed to Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the assessments, or to ESA decision-makers in the DWP.

After receiving a letter telling him he would have to attend a WCA on 24 April, David tried to postpone the test because he was so unwell, but was told by Atos that he could only delay it for a week, and if he didn’t attend he could have his benefits halted.

When he attended the WCA, he says the interview was focused on his physical health, and appeared to ignore his mental health condition.

Afterwards, he was so distressed that he bought a large quantity of heroin – two-and-a-half grams – and tried to kill himself with an overdose. He only came round 26 hours later.

As a result of David’s experiences and those of other patients, Dr Carty wants the government to introduce a system in which GPs can alert the DWP to people whose health has been harmed as a result of being assessed.

He said: “I think there should be a reporting mechanism for circumstances such as this and there isn’t.”

He added: “I don’t think there is anything unusual about my experience. Anecdotally, speaking to other GPs, this is the sort of thing that is happening elsewhere.”

The DWP has so far declined to comment.

*Not his real name

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Government’s advisers call for cash help for DLA losers

The government’s own benefits advice body has called for financial compensation to help those disabled people set to lose out from the government’s reforms and cuts to spending on disability living allowance (DLA).

The social security advisory committee (SSAC) said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should ensure some “transitional protection” for those with lower support needs, in order to avoid “tough cases”.

The committee was responding to a consultation on the government’s proposed assessment criteria for its new personal independence payment (PIP), which is set to replace working-age DLA.

SSAC says transitional protection is necessary because “the removal of the lower rate care component [of DLA] means that people with a lower level of disability who still continue to experience additional costs will lose out under PIP”.

As many as 500,000 disabled people are set to lose the right to support as a result of DWP plans to cut the number of claimants by 20 per cent by 2015-16.

SSAC also complains that the results of disabled people’s claims for employment and support allowance (ESA) are being used as evidence to turn down DLA claims, even though SSAC was “explicitly told by DWP officials that this would not happen”.

This is particularly controversial because of the long-running concerns over the unfairness and inflexibility of the work capability assessment, the test used to judge ESA eligibility.

The committee adds: “The PIP assessment needs to be genuinely independent of the ESA assessment so as to reflect its different emphasis, and one should not be used to inform the other.”

Among other concerns raised in its response to the consultation, SSAC raises fears that the new assessment would exclude many people with mental health conditions from claiming PIP.

It also calls for regular reviews of the PIP assessment because it “may be difficult to get the design of the new benefit right first time”, as well as changes to make the assessment fairer for people with fluctuating and progressive conditions.

A DWP spokesman said: “We welcome the views of all individuals and organisations, including SSAC, as we continue to consult on the detailed requirements for PIP.

“We will be publishing our responses to the consultations in due course.”

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