‘Fitness for work’ appeal ruling ‘makes mockery’ of call for evidence

The government’s successful bid to win the right to appeal a ruling that its “fitness for work” test discriminates against people with mental health conditions “makes a mockery” of a new call for evidence on the assessment, say campaigners.

The call for evidence was made by Dr Paul Litchfield, BT’s chief medical officer, who has been appointed by the government to carry out the fourth independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA).

He wants to focus on how improvements suggested by his predecessor, Professor Malcolm Harrington, have been implemented by the government and Atos Healthcare, which carries out the tests which assess eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).

He will also look at “whether more can be done to ensure that the assessment process is both effective and perceived as being objective”, and is said to be “particularly interested” in examining how the WCA works for people with mental health conditions.

The disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a leading campaigner for WCA reform, said she believed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had “intentionally held back progress” on improving the assessment.

She said: “All the while there are reviews, we can hope for improvements. However, if Harrington wasn’t able to fix a system so tremendously broken, I would be surprised if Litchfield is allowed to do any better.”

Marsh said that all the improvements the government had introduced so far had come from Harrington’s first report in 2010, while his next two reviews became “less and less useful”.

She said: “You can almost feel the ‘independence’ seeping away as the DWP refuse any and all suggestions.”

The day after Litchfield’s call for evidence, it emerged that the government had won the right to appeal against a tribunal ruling that the WCA discriminates against people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism.

Three upper tribunal judges had ruled in May that the WCA puts these groups at a substantial disadvantage, because many of them have problems filling in forms, seeking additional evidence and answering questions.

This week, a spokeswoman for the Mental Health Resistance Network, the campaigning group behind the legal action, said: “This is not the news we wanted but the Tories were never going to give up without a fight as they are desperate to destroy our welfare state. Needless to say we will be fighting back.”

It is not yet clear when the appeal will take place, as the three tribunal judges have yet to deliver their final ruling and are waiting for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to investigate how to ensure that the necessary medical evidence can be obtained.

Alisdair Cameron, team leader of the user-led organisation Launchpad, which is based in Newcastle, said the government’s “disappointing, mean-spirited and harmful” decision to appeal “makes a mockery” of the fourth call for evidence on the WCA.

Launchpad, working with the Mental Health Northeast consortium and False Economy, the union-funded, anti-cuts website, has been pushing Atos and DWP for information about the operation of Mental Function Champions (MFCs), which were supposed to improve the WCA experience for people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties.

The MFCs were introduced following a recommendation by Harrington in the first of his independent reviews, but the three organisations say they appear to have had little or no impact.

Cameron said: “On the one hand we’ve had three previous reviews which made over 50 recommendations, and yet those recommendations that could make the most significant difference to people experiencing mental health problems, for example, the implementation of a robust and accountable MFC system, are simply being ignored.”

He said that, in the light of the government appeal, “finding out how the MFC works and if it actually does work is more important than ever. At the very least, we want all reporting information about that role put into the public domain.”

A DWP spokesman said: “We disagreed with the upper tribunal’s original ruling and are pleased that the court of appeal has given us permission to appeal.”

He said the court had found the grounds for appeal to be “plainly arguable”, and added: “We believe we have made – and continue to make – significant improvements to the work capability assessment process for people with mental health conditions.”

Meanwhile, new figures from the government’s courts and tribunals service show that the number of ESA appeals more than doubled between the fourth quarter of 2011-12 and the fourth quarter of 2012-13.

The latest figures also showed that 43 per cent of ESA appeals that were dealt with at a tribunal hearing were successful.

A DWP spokesman said that “anyone who disagrees with the outcome of their WCA can appeal, so it isn’t surprising that a number of people do”, and that tribunals often overturn decisions because “new evidence is produced at appeal which wasn’t available when the original decision was made”.

He suggested the rise could be due to a gradual increase in the number of people applying for ESA, and the “cumulative effect” of the incapacity benefit reassessment programme, which began in full in April 2011, as well as more people reaching the date for a repeat assessment.

He added: “To help ensure decisions are as accurate as possible at the earliest opportunity, from October 2013, anyone who disputes a decision will have it reconsidered first by the DWP rather than going immediately to a tribunal.

“Following this, if the claimant still disputes the outcome, they can appeal directly to the independent tribunal. However it is likely this process will cut the number of cases which need to go to the tribunal.”

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

MP calls for inquiry into police protest violence

An MP has called for an inquiry into the “violence” of police officers against disabled activists who took part in a protest at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The Labour MP John McDonnell made the call during a Commons debate on Atos Healthcare, the much-criticised company that carries out “fitness for work” assessments on disabled people.

He said he supported the groups that had organised five days of protests against Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics, and said he was “calling for an inquiry into violence against people with disabilities who protested last week at the Department for Work and Pensions”.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the grassroots campaign group that led the protest at the DWP’s Caxton House building in Whitehall on Friday, has welcomed McDonnell’s call.

DPAC’s steering group will be discussing McDonnell’s comments and a likely complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission at a meeting tonight (Friday).

One of the wheelchair-users who took part in the protest is already considering legal action against the Metropolitan police, after he was left with a fractured shoulder when officers tried to break up the peaceful protest.

Another protester, Adam Lotun, had to be held in his wheelchair by fellow activists as officers tried to drag his chair away.

DPAC said the police’s use of force was “excessive, unnecessary, reckless and contravened our right to peaceful protest”, and that it was “difficult to see the police response as anything other than an attempt to provoke a violent reaction from the protesters”.

It is the latest incident in which Metropolitan police officers have been accused of using excessive force against disabled activists, particularly those using wheelchairs.

The Caxton House action was part of a week of protests held to highlight Atos’s role in carrying out “fitness for work” assessments for the government, and widespread anger that the company has been a major sponsor of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Six DPAC activists – and two supporters – occupied the lobby of Caxton House, while four others chained themselves to each other to block the entrance.

They asked to see Maria Miller, at that point still the Conservative minister for disabled people – but were told she was not in the building – and delivered a series of demands, including that Atos should be removed from the contract to assess disabled people for their fitness for work, and that Miller should reverse her decision to close the Independent Living Fund.

Earlier, there had been a “fabulous and joyous” action organised by DPAC and the mainstream protest group UK Uncut outside the London headquarters of Atos, as the final element in a week of protests they called the “Atos Games”.

Hundreds of campaigners fired water pistols, party poppers, blew bubbles, threw water balloons, and performed Atos-style “miracles” to satirise the company’s apparent ability to cure people’s health conditions.

A small group of protesters then left to target the DWP’s Caxton House offices in Westminster, and were later joined by many more of those who had taken part in the earlier protest, including many prominent DPAC members.

But DPAC activists were astonished at how the police responded to the DWP protest.

DPAC has been involved in a series of high-profile direct actions over the last year, and had developed a friendly working relationship with senior officers from the Metropolitan police.

But that appeared to change on Friday afternoon.

Lotun, one of the wheelchair-users who was caught in the crush, said: “I was the first one the police collided into. They knew there were five wheelchair-users in front of them. To get past them they were really going to have to rough-house them.”

He said police tried to pull him out of his wheelchair, which was damaged. He said the Met needed to produce a policy urgently on how to deal with wheelchair-users and other disabled people during protests.

He said: “They do really need to know how they are going to deal with disabled people. People in wheelchairs are going to get hurt. They are not going to get out of the way.”

Andy Greene, one of the DPAC activists who had blocked the doors of Caxton House, said a row of police officers “pushed and pushed and pushed” the protesters towards another line of officers who were already positioned in front of the doors.

He said: “We were staggered by the response, by the physicality, it was so out of left field.”

Despite shouted warnings that there were disabled people with hidden impairments in the crowd, he said, the police continued to squeeze the protesters.

But DPAC say some officers were even more aggressive, with one grabbing a man with learning difficulties around the neck and pushing him against a wall, before being pulled away by a colleague.

Greene said there had not been any trouble in a string of previous DPAC protests over the last year.

“We have not had one incident or trouble at any time. The police have [until this protest] been fantastic.

“Every other time the police have been engaging, conversational and instructive but yesterday they actually ignored us for the first hour.”

A police spokeswoman said that one man was arrested for breach of the peace and obstructing police. He was taken to a police station and later bailed to return to another station in October.

She said that officers deployed to “unplanned protests” would “always make a dynamic assessment of the situation being policed, and will take into account the environment, type of protest, intentions of the crowd and circumstances of those protesting”.

But she said that “all police officers are accountable for their actions”, and added: “Anyone who is unhappy with any aspect of the policing of an event should contact the Metropolitan Police Service so any complaints can be thoroughly investigated”.

Police have so far failed to comment on McDonnell’s calls for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, Lotun has announced that he will stand as an independent candidate at the by-election in Corby on 15 November, caused by the decision of the Conservative MP Louise Mensch to stand down.

Lotun’s wide-ranging manifesto calls for welfare reforms that are “fair to all and fit for purpose”, criticises cuts to disability benefits, and calls for legalisation of cannabis use for medicinal purposes.

He said he was standing on a platform of “anti-discrimination, anti-cuts, anti-warfare and a return to common sense leadership”.

Among his policies he wants to scrap the “fitness for work” assessment and remove the contract to carry it out from Atos.

He said he had already secured support from some Liberal Democrats.

He added: “I am fighting for common sense, not just for disabled people.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

London 2012: Opening ceremony will provide a ‘world stage’ for disability rights

The opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games will provide a “world stage” on which to communicate the importance of disability rights, according to one of its two disabled artistic directors.

Jenny Sealey was speaking hours before the opening ceremony was due to begin, after being asked about the controversial involvement of the company Atos in the London 2012 Paralympics.

She told journalists that boycotting the event because of Atos – a London 2012 sponsor and the subject of protests this week by disabled activists over its role in carrying out “fitness for work” tests for the government – would mean that the disability movement “would just fade away and people would forget about us all over again”.

Sealey, who is also artistic director of the disabled-led theatre company Graeae, added: “So the Paras, and all of our artists’ involvement in tonight, is monumentally important to remind people that we are here, we have rights. We have a world stage to communicate those rights.

“I’m not saying we could change Atos but to go about this with real political and emotional integrity, I think doing this is really important.”

She revealed that the ceremony would begin with an appearance from Professor Stephen Hawking, who she described as “the most famous disabled person alive in the world”.

And she said it would offer “the most exquisite journey of discovery” and would be inspired by “the wonder of science”.

Sealey said that she and Bradley Hemmings – her fellow artistic director, who is curator and producer of Liberty, London’s annual disability arts festival – had a “very prudent” budget.

She said: “Bradley and I are both theatre makers and work for very well-funded companies, but to be given a world stage like this, and more money than we have ever had, we have been incredibly resourceful with what we have had.”

Sealey, who is Deaf, also said that if the budget for the opening ceremony had been “very inflated” she would have felt “very uncomfortable knowing what is happening with cuts around Deaf and disabled people”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

London 2012: Paralympian will put Atos sponsorship under the spotlight

A gold medal-winning Paralympian is to take part in a protest over the decision to allow the much-criticised company responsible for assessing disabled people’s “fitness for work” to sponsor the London 2012 Paralympics.

Tara Flood, now a leading disabled activist, competed in three Paralympic Games, and won gold, silver and bronze medals in the pool in Barcelona in 1992, and still holds a breaststroke world record.

She is to take part in the action outside City Hall in London on Monday evening (27 August), the first of five days of protests organised by the grassroots campaign groups Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut.

The protests will focus on the work capability assessments (WCAs) carried out by Atos Healthcare to test disabled people’s fitness for work on behalf of the government.

But Atos is also a sponsor and IT partner of the Paralympics and built the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) new website. The ties were strengthened last year when the IPC co-opted the founder and former chair of Atos, Bernard Bourigeaud, onto its governing board.

Only last month, serious concerns about the work of Atos in delivering WCAs were raised in two investigative television documentaries broadcast on the same night.

The week of action – which campaigners are calling “the Atos Games” – will include protests at Atos assessment centres across the country, and at the company’s London headquarters.

Flood said: “The irony is extraordinary. On the one hand, Atos are giving money to an event that is about celebrating disabled people’s sporting achievements, while on the other delivering a government contract to destroy disabled people’s lives.”

But she stressed that Atos was delivering a government policy. “There are huge problems with the Atos delivery, but this is a government agenda to dehumanise people as workshy.”

Like many other disabled activists, although she will be protesting about the involvement of Atos in London 2012, Flood has tickets to watch several Paralympic events, including many of the swimming finals, and the opening ceremony.

She said: “In many ways, I do love the idea of a real celebration of disability sport in its own right. What I dislike is the structure around it, with the sport controlled by non-disabled ‘experts’.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

MPs suggest minister ignored ‘fitness for work’ re-test concerns

Questions have been raised over a government minister’s failure to listen to serious concerns about the controversial “fitness for work” test.

The concerns emerged after the airing of two prime-time television documentaries this week, both focusing on the operation of the test used to assess eligibility for the new out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).

A Channel 4 investigation through its Dispatches strand on Monday evening was immediately followed by a Panorama expose on BBC Two, and both heavily criticised the work of Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the work capability assessments (WCA) for the government.

Panorama interviewed several disabled people who had been found “fit for work” following WCAs carried out by Atos “health professionals”, despite serious health conditions.

Among those interviewed was the family of a man with a heart condition who was found fit for work, successfully appealed against that decision, but was then called in for another assessment.

His family told how, on learning that he had been found fit for work a second time, he had decided Atos must be right and had decided to vacuum his car, before collapsing and dying minutes later.

During the programme, Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said it had become clear “in the last few months” that the government had been “calling people back too regularly” for assessments, and so he had told civil servants to “make sure we leave a much more sensible interval”.

But Grayling’s admission has been called into serious question by two leading Labour MPs.

The disabled MP Dame Anne Begg said the work and pensions committee that she chairs told Grayling in the spring of 2011 of its concerns that people who had won appeals against being found fit for work were then almost immediately called in for another WCA.

She has recently received an email from a man with Huntington’s disease who had been called in for his third assessment in three years, was “absolutely feeling persecuted”, and has been told by Atos that if he fails to fill in the necessary form his ESA will be stopped.

The Labour and Co-op MP Tom Greatrex, who has led moves in the Commons to probe Atos’s performance through scores of written questions to ministers, said he had been raising concerns about repeat assessments since last year.

Greatrex said:  “It is wrong for Chris Grayling to claim he is only now being made aware of this problem.

“I met him last year [on 7 December], along with Parkinson’s UK, to highlight concerns that people were being trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of assessment-appeal-reassessment.

“For many people with progressive incurable conditions they are never going to get better.

“The continuous reassessment is a waste of their time and energy, as well as a waste of taxpayer money.”

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “We are aware that very shortly after appeal, some individuals are being asked to attend a reassessment.

“We have strengthened guidance to ‘decision makers’ to ensure claimants are recalled after appropriate periods of time and are working to get better feedback from the Tribunals Services on their reasons for overturning decisions.”

But DWP has so far been unable to say why Grayling has taken so long to respond to the concerns.

The Dispatches programme, which was watched by 1.3 million people, followed a GP as he trained to become an assessor for Atos.

His Atos trainer was shown admitting that the WCA was “toxic” and “very, very tough”.

She then warned the GP that any assessor who allowed too many disabled people to join the ESA support group – for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity – would be told this rate was “too high”.

Campaigners pointed to the admission as proof that Atos had been given targets for the number of disabled people it should find “fit for work”, a claim the Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny strenuously, although it says Atos has “contractual arrangements they need to adhere to in terms of quantity and quality”.

Dame Anne said she was “shocked” by some of the statements made by the Atos trainer and her apparent “harsh interpretation” of the WCA rules.

She said: “It gives the lie to the assertion that those who are most disabled are protected and have nothing to fear.”

She said DWP must investigate the training being given to new Atos assessors to find out “whether it is so harsh and unforgiving and unbending as it appeared in Dispatches”.

Atos this week refused to answer a series of questions from Disability News Service (DNS) about the two documentaries, declining to say which key facts and conclusions it disputed.

An Atos spokeswoman instead emailed a statement, which claimed the company spends “a great deal of time and resource in training and reviewing the work of our medical professionals to ensure that those assessed are treated both professionally and sympathetically”.

She said: “It is important to underline that the assessment forms an important but single part of the information used by the DWP when it makes its decisions on benefits.”

She refused to say whether Atos was investigating any of the issues raised by the two programmes.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government says ‘no guarantees’ over recording of ‘fit for work’ tests

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that it cannot guarantee that disabled people who want to have their “fitness for work” tests recorded will be able to do so.

Ministers introduced a new right last year for claimants to have their work capability assessment (WCA) recorded – if a request was made in advance – but only paid for 11 specialist, dual-CD interview recorders to cover the entire country.

The concession was introduced because of complaints that “healthcare professionals” working for Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out the tests for the government, were failing to record accurately the evidence they were given.

But there has been mounting confusion over whether claimants have the right to postpone their WCA if Atos tells them there will be no recording equipment available.

One disabled woman has twice been told by Atos staff that all 11 of the interview recorders were “broken” and that Atos had decided it would no longer offer a recording option.

The Conservative employment minister Chris Grayling promised MPs in February that Atos would “offer everyone who wants it the opportunity to have their session recorded”.

But Atos says on its website that it “cannot postpone an assessment on the basis of audio-recording”.

Grayling increased confusion by telling MPs last week that if recording equipment was not available “clients will be told in advance that their request cannot be accommodated and offered a later date”.

Despite this answer, a DWP spokeswoman has now confirmed to Disability News Service that “although we continue to make reasonable endeavours to accommodate requests for recording assessments, we believe it would be unreasonable to delay the assessment indefinitely for this purpose”.

She said only a “very few people” would not be able to have their WCA recorded, and added: “Atos will make every effort to get your assessment recorded but for a very few people that situation cannot go on indefinitely.

“If there is a particular problem [with arranging the recording equipment] then it may be that you have to proceed with the assessment without recording.”

She said Atos had ordered some new recorders – but could not say how many – and would also borrow equipment usually used by DWP to record interviews in cases of suspected benefit fraud.

She added: “We initially purchased 11 as there were very small numbers who requested recording and on the basis of [a pilot project] the solution seemed reasonable. 

“We are now putting in a revised solution but must balance the still very small number of requests with appropriate use of public money which we will continue to evaluate.”

Debbie Jolly, a member of the grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said that despite the “Chinese whispers” taking place between DWP, Atos and MPs, they all insist that a “very small number” of people request recordings of their WCA.

But she said that early results from a survey launched this week by DPAC and fellow campaigning groups Black Triangle and Social Welfare Union cast huge doubt on this conclusion, with 98 per cent of people who have taken part saying they would like their WCA recorded.

Of those refused a recording, she said, most were not given a reason or an alternative appointment, but were told instead that they would be classed as a “no show” if they didn’t take the original appointment.

They launched the survey because of fears that the government will try to remove the option of recording WCAs completely by claiming there is a lack of demand.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com