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

Labour conference: Miliband’s welfare reference ‘was clumsy not offensive’

The Labour leader has again used his main conference speech – for the second year running – to suggest that many disabled benefits claimants were choosing a life on welfare rather than finding jobs.

Ed Miliband’s speech, in which he described his vision of a “One Nation Britain” in which “everyone has a stake” and “prosperity is fairly shared”, was widely praised, particularly for his presentational skills

But he told the Labour conference in Manchester: “We must show compassion and support for all those who cannot work, particularly the disabled men and women of this country. But in order to do so, those who can work have a responsibility to do so.”

He added: “We can’t leave people languishing out of work, for one year, two years, three years. We have a responsibility to help them and they have a responsibility to take the work that is on offer.”

Miliband also mentioned older people “not getting the care they need”, and called for “much greater dignity” for “our elderly population” because of the “care crisis”, but he made no mention of working-age disabled people, whose needs make up one third of the social care budget.

When asked why Miliband had suggested that many claimants were choosing a life on welfare, rather than focusing in his speech on the barriers to work and discrimination that they face, a Labour party spokeswoman said: “I would refer you to the speech.”

She declined to comment further.

Sue Marsh, a disabled party member who attended the conference and watched the speech, and a leading activist and blogger, said she believed Miliband’s comments had been “clumsy and certainly not intentionally offensive”.

She said: “For the Labour party at the moment to say ‘we need to support people who cannot work’ is quite strong. But we want them to go much further and say more. They realise it is an issue and I think that is the first step.”

Another disabled activist and blogger, Kaliya Franklin, said of Miliband’s comments: “Compared to where we were last year, it is a significant improvement, but compared to where we should be and were in 2010 it is terrible.”

Last year, Labour was accused of a similar marginalisation of disability, and of blocking attempts to discuss problems caused by the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), with party managers refusing to allow Marsh to speak during a “prosperity and work” debate, and rejecting her bid for the subject to be voted on as a potential issue for debate.

Miliband referred last year to the need for the welfare system to reward “the right people with the right values” and said benefits were “too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do”, while calling for a system that “works for working people”.

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, had mirrored some of the hostile, disablist language used by tabloid newspapers, telling the 2011 conference that voters at the election “felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers”.

4 October 2012

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Labour conference: Party ‘must move away from toxic fitness for work policy’

A leading disabled activist has called on the Labour leadership to move away from its “toxic” position on the “fitness for work” test and instead develop policies that support sick and disabled people into work.

The work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced by the Labour government in October 2008 but has come under increasing attack from campaigners who claim it is being used unfairly to force people off disability benefits.

Sue Marsh, an influential blogger and campaigner and a Labour party member, met at this week’s Labour conference in Manchester with the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, and its shadow disabled people’s minister, Anne McGuire.

She had been trying to secure a meeting with Byrne – who has been heavily criticised for not speaking out on the government’s disablist rhetoric on welfare reform and on the unfairness of the test – for two years.

She said afterwards: “There is definitely a keenness to get out of the mess they are in [with the WCA]. I can’t say if they are going to listen, but I truly hope they are.”

Marsh said she believed the party was trying to move “incrementally” away from “a policy that they know is very toxic”, and which “can either sit in their lap in 2015 or it can sit in the Tories’ lap”.

And she encouraged disabled people to engage with the year-long review of the party’s disability policies that Byrne and McGuire are carrying out, which includes a series of round-table discussions across the country with disabled people.

Marsh has been pushing for her party to adopt a more positive, supportive policy towards sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits.

She wants the government to use the money it wastes on the “abysmal” assessment system – designed to force one million disabled people off incapacity benefits – and use it instead to make the system more “kind, compassionate, helpful and enabling”.

She said she wants Labour to focus on “broadening the opportunity, not tightening the gateway”.

Last year, Marsh received more than 250 responses to a consultation, carried out through her blog, which asked disabled people what work they could and would do if there was a “listening government”.

Now she wants the party to work these ideas into its next work and pensions manifesto.

Key suggestions include measures to make the benefits system more open to long-term sick and disabled people to run “micro-businesses”, providing them with the opportunity to work flexibly for as many or as few hours as they could manage. At present, said Marsh, if she earned more than £20 a week she would lose £500 every month in benefits.

Another suggestion from the consultation was to encourage big companies to do more to provide flexible work hours for their disabled employees and allow them to work from home.

And instead of giving hundreds of millions of pounds every year to Atos – which carries out the WCA for the government – this money could be used to provide training budgets for disabled people who have had to stop work, or even to pay part of their salary while they are too sick to do their job.

4 October 2012

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Labour conference: Party ‘must move away from toxic fitness for work policy’

A leading disabled activist has called on the Labour leadership to move away from its “toxic” position on the “fitness for work” test and instead develop policies that support sick and disabled people into work.

The work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced by the Labour government in October 2008 but has come under increasing attack from campaigners who claim it is being used unfairly to force people off disability benefits.

Sue Marsh, an influential blogger and campaigner and a Labour party member, met at this week’s Labour conference in Manchester with the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, and its shadow disabled people’s minister, Anne McGuire.

She had been trying to secure a meeting with Byrne – who has been heavily criticised for not speaking out on the government’s disablist rhetoric on welfare reform and on the unfairness of the test – for two years.

She said afterwards: “There is definitely a keenness to get out of the mess they are in [with the WCA]. I can’t say if they are going to listen, but I truly hope they are.”

Marsh said she believed the party was trying to move “incrementally” away from “a policy that they know is very toxic”, and which “can either sit in their lap in 2015 or it can sit in the Tories’ lap”.

And she encouraged disabled people to engage with the year-long review of the party’s disability policies that Byrne and McGuire are carrying out, which includes a series of round-table discussions across the country with disabled people.

Marsh has been pushing for her party to adopt a more positive, supportive policy towards sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits.

She wants the government to use the money it wastes on the “abysmal” assessment system – designed to force one million disabled people off incapacity benefits – and use it instead to make the system more “kind, compassionate, helpful and enabling”.

She said she wants Labour to focus on “broadening the opportunity, not tightening the gateway”.

Last year, Marsh received more than 250 responses to a consultation, carried out through her blog, which asked disabled people what work they could and would do if there was a “listening government”.

Now she wants the party to work these ideas into its next work and pensions manifesto.

Key suggestions include measures to make the benefits system more open to long-term sick and disabled people to run “micro-businesses”, providing them with the opportunity to work flexibly for as many or as few hours as they could manage. At present, said Marsh, if she earned more than £20 a week she would lose £500 every month in benefits.

Another suggestion from the consultation was to encourage big companies to do more to provide flexible work hours for their disabled employees and allow them to work from home.

And instead of giving hundreds of millions of pounds every year to Atos – which carries out the WCA for the government – this money could be used to provide training budgets for disabled people who have had to stop work, or even to pay part of their salary while they are too sick to do their job.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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.”

Charity boss resists calls to quit ‘fitness for work’ committee

A disability charity boss has resisted calls to resign from a committee that advises the government on its controversial “fitness for work” assessment, even though GPs have demanded that the test be scrapped.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, was appointed last month to the scrutiny group that is overseeing Professor Malcolm Harrington’s continuing review of the work capability assessment (WCA).

Gillespie replaced Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, who himself resigned because he said the government was ignoring serious concerns about the impact of the WCA – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – on people with mental health conditions.

Gillespie was appointed to the scrutiny group only days before the British Medical Association’s annual conference of GPs called for the WCA to “end with immediate effect”, and to be replaced with a “rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm” to their patients.

In the wake of the vote, disabled activists called for Gillespie to step down immediately from the scrutiny group.

John McArdle, a founding member of the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, said Gillespie’s membership of the panel was “untenable”, and that he was not representing “the best interests of people who are disabled with ms”.

And he questioned whether the charity had “bothered to consult with those whom it claims to represent – people actually living with ms”.

He said that not one of the people with ms who Black Triangle had spoken to supported Gillespie’s appointment, and that “on the contrary, an enormous amount of anger and sense of betrayal has been expressed”.

He said that GPs “could not have been clearer in their refusal to be complicit in a system that had been shown to be harmful”, and he welcomed Farmer’s “honourable resignation” from the panel.

He added: “It has become abundantly clear that participation in this panel serves no other purpose than to legitimise an utterly discredited ‘assessment’ regime which is undeniably… causing enormous devastation, hardship and even death to sick and/or disabled people on a daily basis.”

But although Gillespie said he welcomed the vote by GPs, he said he would not resign.

In a statement, he said: “The current benefits system is denying thousands of genuine claimants the support they need to get by, causing a great deal of hardship, anxiety and stress, and costing the state millions in appeals and administration.

“That’s why it’s more important than ever that the review of the WCA system is scrutinised properly, and that the voice of disabled people is heard.

“The independent review needs to be a vehicle for real, tangible improvement of the system to ensure fair outcomes that properly recognise the barriers disabled people face.

“The MS Society has been vocal on this issue for some time and, while I hope my appointment will help lead to positive change, it will not prevent our future vocal criticism of the government or the benefits system where we feel it necessary.”

‘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.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com