Jobcentre ‘harassed’ woman as she received emergency blood transfusion

A disabled woman awaiting a second kidney transplant was “harassed” by her local jobcentre during an emergency blood transfusion, because they wanted to know when she would be well enough to attend a back-to-work interview.

Annemarie Campbell says the jobcentre in central London knew she was in hospital, and that she was seriously ill, but still hounded her while she lay hooked up to life-saving medical equipment in an emergency renal ward of Hammersmith Hospital last Friday (8 February).

Campbell, who has end-stage renal failure, described her treatment by jobcentre staff as “inhumane, discriminatory and degrading”.

She had received a letter from the jobcentre asking her to attend a work-focussed interview on 8 February.

She called a manager at the jobcentre on 7 February, and told him she was seriously ill and had to be in hospital the next day for an emergency transfusion.

She was told they would phone her again in a few weeks. Instead, she received a call the next day from a member of the jobcentre’s staff, who said: “It’s just to ask you when you can attend the interview. Can somebody not tell you when you are going to be released?”

When Campbell said she was hooked up to medical equipment for the transfusion of six pints of blood, the woman asked her to find out from her consultant when she would be well enough to leave hospital.

Campbell, a former civil servant, from west London, is now considering legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), while she says her consultant is writing a letter of complaint.

She said the experience left her in tears throughout the following weekend, and that her consultant had now told her she could not continue her studies or take part in a work placement because her life was “on a knife edge” due to the extra stress.

She said: “What happened has made me more ill. They have screwed up my treatment and won’t get off my back.

“I have been stripped of my dignity. It has made me feel as if my disability is being used as a stick to beat me with.

“What if I don’t get a transplant? Are they going to punish me? I don’t need a job, I need a kidney.”

Campbell is also angry because she has told the jobcentre she already has a job to go back to when she is well enough – she does legal agency work – and is desperate to return to employment and her part-time university course.

Her problems began in 2009, after she had to appeal against being found fit for work and ineligible for employment and support allowance (ESA).

She eventually won her appeal and was placed in the ESA support group – for those not expected to do any work-related activity – but returned to agency work when her condition improved.

Her health deteriorated again, and she was forced to reapply for ESA last autumn.

When Atos Healthcare – the company that assesses “fitness for work” – heard how ill she was, and saw a letter from her GP, she was told she would not need a face-to-face assessment and would be placed straight into the support group.

But three weeks ago, she was called by her local jobcentre to say the DWP’s own decision-makers had placed her in the work-related activity group, for those with lower support needs, and would need to attend a work-focussed interview.

Campbell says she made it clear to the jobcentre that she was extremely unwell and about to return to hospital.

This week, Jobcentre Plus has phoned to apologise and assure her that she will not now need to attend a work-focussed interview and has finally been placed in the support group.

Linda Burnip, one of the co-founders of Disabled People Against Cuts, which received a request for help from Campbell this week, said: “While we’re inundated on a daily basis with reports about people’s appalling experiences at the hands of Atos and DWP staff, this has to be the most callous and brutal example of how the system is totally failing to meet the needs of disabled people.”

A DWP spokesman denied that Campbell had been “harassed”, and claimed that she had arranged for the jobcentre to call her about the work-focussed interview on the day she was in hospital having the emergency transfusion, but had warned that she might not be available because of the treatment.

Campbell says this claim is “absolute rubbish”, and that she had simply told them on 7 February that she was “really unwell” and that they could call her consultant the next day if they did not believe her.

The DWP spokesman claimed there had been no harassment on the phone while Campbell was lying in her hospital bed, and said: “I don’t know exactly what [the jobcentre employee] said so I cannot comment on that at all.”

He said Jobcentre Plus had phoned Campbell to apologise this week “because she was upset by the call [while she was receiving her transfusion], because obviously she was. It was also to reassure her that she was in the support group.”

He added: “Our version of events is obviously different. It was unfortunate timing that she was in hospital and she was upset and it was completely reasonable that we apologise that she was upset.”

14 February 2013

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Unum bragged about ‘driving government thinking’ on incapacity benefit reform

An insurance company set to make huge financial gains from incapacity benefit (IB) reform bragged about “driving” the government towards those reforms, evidence obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) has revealed.

The US insurance giant Unum has repeatedly denied attempting to influence IB reform over the last two decades, despite mounting evidence that it has done so.

Unum is the largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI) in the UK, and tougher welfare rules – including replacing incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance (ESA) – are likely to persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting the company’s profits.

Unum even launched a major media campaign in 2011 just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through the new, stricter test, the work capability assessment (WCA).

Now DNS has secured a copy of a Unum document on the assessment of “incapacity”, which was published in 2005.

The document was written by Michael O’Donnell, then the company’s chief medical officer and now in the same role at Atos Healthcare, which carries out WCAs on behalf of the government.

O’Donnell says in the document that Unum has “always been at the leading edge of disability assessment and management”.

He adds: “We know that our views and understanding are not yet in the mainstream of doctors’ thinking, but Government Policy is moving in the same direction, to a large extent being driven by our thinking and that of our close associates, both in the UK and overseas.”

Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people, a record mentioned in last month’s Commons debate on Atos and the WCA.

But Unum has also faced criticism in the UK. In a parliamentary debate in 1999, MPs accused the company of refusing to pay out on valid insurance claims from disabled people who had lost their jobs due to ill-health or disability.

Unum continues to dismiss claims that it pushed the government to introduce the ESA/WCA system.

In 2011, John Letizia, Unum’s head of public affairs, told Disability News Service (DNS): “At no time have we influenced the government on the design of the reforms to the welfare state or on the level of benefits that claimants receive.”

And in the same year, at the Conservative Party conference, Unum’s chief executive, Jack McGarry, said: “We haven’t tried to influence the welfare agenda around reducing welfare or making it harder to claim. To my knowledge we have not done that.”

This week, Letizia told DNS again that Unum had not attempted to influence the government’s welfare reform agenda.

He said: “We will never ever deny that there were discussions between Unum and the previous government and there continue to be [with the coalition].”

But he added: “In all the discussions going back over the last five years on welfare reform Unum made absolutely no attempt to influence government policy on the welfare debate, on the ESA or WCA or personal independence payment or disability living allowance, in setting the government agenda.”

After DNS shared the document with Letizia, he declined to comment further.

Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has done most to highlight concerns about Unum, said the new evidence was “very significant”, and called for an independent inquiry into the role of the company in influencing UK welfare reform, particularly when it had such a “disturbing past history”.

She said: “This entire situation confirms the dangers of a government that confuses its priorities, and places the welfare budget as a much higher priority than the needs of its own chronically sick and disabled people.”

She added: “The WCA is a replica of the assessment system used by Unum to resist funding insurance claimants.

“It is a bogus, dangerous assessment and, with this evidence, it is now time that this DWP medical tyranny was ended.”

A DWP spokesman said: “The WCA was designed from the outset with the involvement of a wide range of experts and disability representative groups and has been subject to rigorous independent review.”

14 February 2013

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Benefits bill is miserable and mean-spirited, says disabled peer

A disabled peer has attacked a “mean-spirited”, “miserable” and “dishonest” government bill that will see disabled people in 3.4 million households across Britain facing further cuts to their income.

Lord [Colin] Low told fellow peers that the welfare benefits up-rating bill would see “a real-terms cut in vital support for many disabled people”.

And he criticised the “myths” that the government had used to justify the bill, including the claim that “the most vulnerable are protected”.

Lord Low told fellow peers debating the bill’s second reading: “You do not protect the poor by cutting welfare, since it is the poor who rely on welfare.”

He said the treatment of disabled people in the bill showed the “essential dishonesty of the government’s propaganda”, with disabled people already experiencing a drop of £500 million in their income since the emergency budget of 2010.

The bill will see many benefits up-rated by only one per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16, in addition to the one per cent increase already due to be implemented this year, far below the expected rate of inflation.

Although disability living allowance and disability-related premiums will be protected from the one per cent cap, the main element of employment and support allowance (ESA) will rise by just one per cent, as will the extra element for claimants in the ESA work-related activity group, for those disabled people expected to move eventually into jobs.

Other disabled people who fail to qualify for out-of-work disability benefits, and are forced instead to claim jobseeker’s allowance, will also see their benefits cut in real terms, as will those claiming housing benefit.

Lord Low said that households in the ESA work-related activity group would be £87.65 a year worse off as a result of the bill, while those in the support group would be £62.76 a year worse off.

He pointed out that – when extra disability-related costs were taken into account – almost half of households with a disabled member were already living in poverty.

And he called on the government to uprate the whole of ESA in line with inflation, and to exempt disabled people from the reduced uprating of other benefits, including housing benefit.

His fellow disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, was also heavily critical of the bill.

She said: “The government have already reduced the welfare budget for working-age people, so this bill will be yet another blow for low earners and unemployed, sick, or disabled people.”

She added: “The numbers going to food banks are rising steeply. These proposed changes impact disproportionately on those with a low income because more of their income goes on buying essentials, and it is these essentials such as fuel and food that are subject to high inflation.”

And she said that disabled people who cannot work or cannot find work, and those on low earnings, were already being affected by other benefit cuts.

She said: “Decisions on uprating should not be taken without recognising the cumulative impact.”

Lord Newby, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, insisted that the coalition’s intention was not to “demonise”, “stigmatise”, or “brand the poor as undeserving”, but to “help – albeit painfully – provide a sustainable platform for the public finances and the economy going forward”.

He claimed the government had “protected those benefits designed to reflect the additional costs that disabled people face as a result of their disability”, but admitted that some disabled people would be affected by the bill.

13 February 2013

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Atos nurses were told: ‘You’re too nice to work here’

Two nurses who resigned from the government’s “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare because it was “cut-throat” and “ruthless” have described how they were criticised by their managers for being “too nice”.

They spoke out only days after the latest report to criticise Atos was published by the Commons public accounts committee, which said the company had carried out “thousands of poorly administered tests each year”.

Last month, opposition MPs also lined up during a Commons debate to criticise Atos for the way it has carried out the contract to assess claimants of the new employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

Disabled activists have held a string of protests aimed at highlighting the damage they say Atos has caused disabled people.

The grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts has accused Atos of finding people in comas and with terminal illnesses fit for work, using “an inhumane computer programme” to carry out assessments, and training staff “to push people off benefits”.

Now two nurses who worked at the company have added their weight to concerns about the way it operates, although Atos has refuted their claims.

One of the nurses says she and other assessors were constantly monitored on the number of claimants they recommended should be placed in the support group.

Jane*, who has posted her own account of her experiences on the Atos Victims website, said: “There was a percentage. If you were above that percentage they would review all of your cases. If you put too many in, you had to be monitored and you would have to get permission to put any more in the support group. There was a limit.”

Although she has no proof, she is convinced Atos has been given targets by the Department for Work and Pensions for the number of claimants it finds “fit for work”.

Those colleagues who were more ruthless with their assessments and found more claimants fit for work were “praised” by managers, she says.

Jane, who worked at Atos for a few months last year, said assessors were “taught to be cut-throat”.

She said: “It was drilled into you that you were not allowed to show any emotion. You couldn’t care. You weren’t allowed to care.”

On one occasion, after she had taken longer than usual to carry out an assessment, she was taken aside by a manager and told: “You’re not there to talk, you’re there to do an assessment. You’re not there to care.

“You are too nice, but that will come with experience. You’ll harden up.’”

On another occasion, she had been forced to abandon an assessment – following the correct WCA procedures – because a woman had become so distressed by the assessment that she began hallucinating.

Jane sat with her in the “quiet room” for 35 minutes while she waited for her family to pick her up.

But when a manager found out how long she had spent with the woman, Jane was given a verbal warning and told: “You have got to stop being so nice. This will go on your record.”

Jane says Atos assessors were taught during their training to try to trip up claimants.

“You had to tease information out of them, so they would drop themselves in it. We were encouraged to try to get contradictory evidence by asking them to discuss their typical day-to-day activities.

“For example, if a claimant with mental health problems reported difficulty interacting with strangers, I was encouraged to find evidence from his typical day, no matter how simple, to prove this was not the case.

“One particular guy became quite aggressive with me. I asked for advice and my mentor told me: ‘Don’t worry, he’s not mad, just bad.’”

After her concerns reached one of the directors, he asked to see her. When she told him she did not feel as if she was helping anybody, he told her: “You are. You are saving so much money. That’s why we are here, to get these people back to work and bring down the level of benefits.”

Jane quit the job with Atos after only a few months, concerned that the work she was being asked to do could put her nursing registration at risk.

She said: “I just don’t think it is a job for a nurse. As soon as I got into the car in the morning, I felt sick, and I just didn’t want to go. It is a job I wish I had never done.”

She believes Atos should be stripped of its contract to carry out the assessments. “They are so ruthless. Somebody said to me that the job is ‘toxic’, and I think they are right.”

A second nurse, Joyce Drummond, who worked for Atos in Glasgow in 2009 – carrying out assessments for incapacity benefit, ESA’s predecessor – says she was also told by an Atos director that she was “too nice”.

She said: “I was so shocked to be told a nurse could be too nice. It was horrible. I thought I would help people get the benefits they were entitled to. When the penny dropped, my conscience wouldn’t let me carry on. I was coming home in tears. I couldn’t do it.”

Joyce agrees with Jane that assessors were taught to “trick” claimants, for example by asking them about their pet if they were depressed, and then noting down if they smiled when they talked about it.

“Everything was just twisted, nothing was like it seemed. Everything was aimed at catching people out.”

She insists that most of the people she saw had a “real reason” to claim the benefit, and there were only a small minority who were “trying to pull a fast one”.

Like Jane, she said she would feel “sick” at the thought of going to work for Atos every morning. Eventually, she left the company, and has not worked since. She believes the strain of working there contributed to her worsening health.

She has since had two assessments of her own from Atos assessors, both of which found her fit for work but were overturned on appeal. She was found fit for work for a third time last June, and is now awaiting her third tribunal.

Joyce believes Atos is “just in it for the money”. “They have forgotten their consciences. The feeling about the place was that somehow the people claiming benefit were different from the rest of us, a lower-class person.

“We were told quite bluntly: ‘They can always appeal.’ There was no respect for the people we were assessing.”

She added: “It is not a nurse’s job. A nurse is meant to have a duty of care for a patient, to have a bit of compassion. They are supposed to be advocates for their patients.”

An Atos spokeswoman said: “We refute these claims. We know how difficult this process can be for people and we employ only highly-trained doctors, nurses and physiotherapists to carry out the work capability assessment, many of whom come directly from the NHS.

“We work extremely hard on providing a professional and compassionate service and our customer satisfaction survey measures how courteous, polite and gentle our practitioners are. Our scores in this area are very highly rated, consistently over 90 per cent.

“We take care to look after our healthcare staff, all of whom are aware of and have access to our employment assistance programme, which provides a confidential free-phone helpline and face-to-face counselling.”

*Not her real name

14 February 2013

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Anger as government adds disabled people to workfare scheme

Disabled people could now be forced to work indefinitely for their out-of-work benefits, as a result of new government rules introduced this week.

Those who fail to co-operate with the periods of “work experience” arranged for them could have their benefits cut.

The new rules – introduced on the UN’s international day of disabled people – will apply to claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been assessed as being able to find paid work at some point and so have been placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG).

The decision to force them into work experience could be taken by a Jobcentre Plus adviser or one of the private sector contractors paid by the government to find jobs for long-term unemployed benefit claimants through its Work Programme.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) made it clear that there were “no plans to set a fixed minimum or maximum length for a work placement”, although they were expected to last “for around two weeks” and “must be reasonable and meet the claimant’s circumstances”.

The DWP said the placement must benefit the community and be “appropriate” to the claimant’s impairment, but could include cases “where someone refuses to take reasonable steps to address a barrier which is stopping them working”.

John McArdle, a founding member of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Black Triangle, said: “It should be obvious to anyone why this is a bad idea. People who are unfit for work are being forced into unpaid ‘employment’ on pain of being made destitute.”

He said he believed the scheme was “immoral… and possibly illegal” and would probably be challenged in court.

And he suggested that any disabled person whose health was “seriously harmed” as a result of such work experience would be able to bring a clear case of negligence or discrimination.

He added: “We are talking about people with multiple impairments and/or illnesses as evidenced by real medical experts and not DWP/Atos ‘disability assessors’.”

In addition to the workfare scheme, DWP said that other WRAG claimants will be offered short periods of “voluntary” work experience.

A DWP spokesman said it was not possible to predict what proportion of ESA claimants would be expected to take part in the workfare scheme, as placements would be “decided on a case by case basis and must be appropriate to the individual’s circumstances”.

The DWP said in a statement that such work experience would “help people with limited employment history get a flavour of the workplace environment, gain new skills and boost their confidence for an eventual return to work”.

Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said: “People on sickness benefits who do all they can to improve their chances of moving back in to a job have nothing to worry about; they will get their benefits and we will do all we can to help.

“But in the small number of cases where people refuse to stick to their part of the bargain, it’s only right there are consequences.”

6 December 2012

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DWP reports suggest Work Programme has failed disabled people

Major questions have been raised over the government’s plans to support disabled people into work, after two long-awaited reports showed only about 1,000 claimants of disability benefits found work through the scheme in its first year.

The first Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report shows that about 79,000 ESA claimants passed through the Work Programme between its launch in June 2011 and July this year, giving a success rate of just over one per cent.

To be counted in the figures, a disabled benefits claimant needed to stay in a job for only three months, compared with six months for non-disabled job-seekers.

The success rate is slightly higher for former incapacity benefit claimants who had been assessed and found “fit for work”, with just over two per cent of them finding work for at least three months.

The overall figures – which include non-disabled job-seekers – show about 3.5 per cent of those on the scheme found some work.

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons public accounts committee, described the overall figures as “shocking” and said the Work Programme – which is aimed at jobseekers who are long-term unemployed or at risk of becoming long-term unemployed – was “falling woefully short of expectations”.

The second DWP report provides possible explanations for the low number of disabled people helped into work, and suggests that the government has underestimated the significant barriers to work faced by many of those forced onto the programme, including those on employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.

The report suggests that the Work Programme has failed to help many of those with the most significant barriers, such as people with mental health conditions.

Some Work Programme advisers told researchers that the scheme’s model of “conditionality” and “sanctioning” had proved to be “not appropriate for individuals with the most significant and complex barriers to employment”.

They reported that some of these participants were “almost unable” to avoid being sanctioned – having their benefits withdrawn for increasing periods of time – because they could not comply with the conditions they had to meet.

The report also suggests that the main Work Programme contractors – most of which are from the private sector – have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of people they are dealing with, and instead of giving those with higher support needs more attention, have given them less, while there has been a lack of funding to address the barriers these clients face.

The Work Programme was designed to deal with this problem by offering higher payments to contractors who found jobs for those who were furthest away from the job market, such as disabled people claiming ESA.

But despite these higher payments, contractors appear instead to have prioritised those who were more “job ready”.

Steve Harry, an employment adviser and a board member of Disability Cornwall, who has 15 years’ experience of helping disabled people into work, said he was not surprised by the conclusions of the two reports.

He said he believed the Work Programme was doomed to fail disabled people and other job-seekers.

Harry said the payment-by-results model meant providers focused on how cheaply they could deliver support and “getting results and getting job outcomes as quickly as possible”.

He said: “The Work Programme does an awful lot if what you need is a CV and how to apply for jobs. If you need more than that it doesn’t really meet your needs.”

He added: “It is not really a serious attempt to help people with significant disabilities back into work.”

A spokesman for the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the trade body for the welfare-to-work industry, said: “The industry does accept that the performance [in finding work] for people on ESA is behind par and more must be done to help these job-seekers find sustainable employment.”

29 November 2012

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People’s Review of WCA finds its way to Fry’s five million followers

Disabled people are still experiencing humiliating and inappropriate treatment because of the failings embedded within the government’s “fitness for work” assessment system, according to a new report researched and written by a disabled campaigner.

The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment is the fifth major research report into the impact of government cuts on disabled people by the WeAreSpartacus group of campaigners and researchers.

And its profile secured a huge boost when the actor and writer Stephen Fry – a Twitter superstar with more than five million followers – retweeted a link to the report this morning (15 November).

The report, which has so far been retweeted nearly 1,500 times, aims “to show the reality of going through the work capability assessment (WCA)”, which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

It includes accounts of more than 70 people who have been assessed, and of welfare rights advisers and other professionals, the results of Freedom of Information requests, and summaries of parliamentary and government publications and media investigations.

It also details a string of cases involving ESA claimants who have killed themselves or otherwise died after being told they were “fit for work”, all of them in circumstances in which the WCA appears to have been a factor in their deaths.

And it comes as Professor Malcolm Harrington prepares to publish his third and final annual review of the WCA for the government, which is expected next week.

The author of The People’s Review, who has asked to remain anonymous because of the “culture of fear” that has built up around the assessment process, has taken a year to compile the report because of her health condition.

Jane Young, the coordinator of the WeAreSpartacus network, who edited the report, said she hoped its contents would be used by activists and MPs as a campaigning tool, particularly as a contrast to the expected conclusions of the Harrington report.

One disabled person who described experiencing the ESA system says in the report: “I am tired of fighting officials who seem to think they know more about my disabilities and needs than I do.

“It now makes me feel ashamed of who I am. I am being punished for being disabled and feel powerless.”

Many of those quoted describe their experiences at the hands of the healthcare professionals who are employed by Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments.

A woman who accompanied her husband to his WCA says: “I can honestly say there are lies that go into that assessment. I do shorthand and I took down word for word my husband’s whole assessment. What actually came back was practically the opposite of everything he said.”

Another ESA claimant says: “I felt relief at getting ESA awarded, but three months later I’ve been sent a questionnaire to start the whole medical process again.

“Nothing’s changed in three months. I have a chronic condition, it’s not going to go away. Tipped me further into depression. Stress of the ESA makes my condition worse. I am worthless and a burden to society.”

And another disabled claimant says: “The assessor just sat behind a desk and barked questions at me, which caused me to have a panic attack, to which she told me to ‘stop messing about’.”

Professor Peter Beresford, who chairs the national user-led Shaping Our Lives network and is professor of social policy at Brunel University, says the research is particularly important because it reports “the direct voices of people at the sharp end” of the WCA.

He says in the report’s foreword: “This report lays bare the poverty of the WCA in theory and practice. And it does this by reporting its reality as experienced first-hand by disabled people.”

He says that evidence now shows the WCA to be “unreliable and unhelpful, as well as being arbitrary and cruel”, and adds: “It is an expensive, flawed and inefficient system that appears to cost more than it saves and is run by yet another multi-national corporation whose incompetence seems to go unpunished.”

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