Court claim after ‘fitness for work harassment’ during blood transfusion

A disabled woman who claims she lost the use of her last kidney because of harassment from her local jobcentre during an emergency blood transfusion is taking legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Lawyers for Annemarie Campbell will this week issue a claim for damages against DWP under the Equality Act, claiming discrimination, and possibly also harassment and a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

Campbell was receiving the blood transfusion in February when her jobcentre called her on her mobile phone to ask when she would be well enough to attend a back-to-work interview.

She had told the jobcentre in central London only the previous day that she would be in hospital for an emergency transfusion, and that she was seriously ill and awaiting a second kidney transplant.

But she says the jobcentre still hounded her while she lay hooked up to life-saving medical equipment in an emergency renal ward of Hammersmith Hospital.

A member of the jobcentre’s staff phoned her and asked when she could attend her work-focussed interview. When Campbell told her she was in the middle of a blood transfusion, the adviser asked her if she could fetch her consultant.

Campbell said: “When I was getting the blood transfusion it was trying to prolong my kidney and make me live a bit longer.

“I was on the phone being upset all the time, constantly trying to explain myself. They were pushing me to go back to work, constantly phoning me and writing to me.”

Five days after the transfusion, she told her consultant that she was going back to work, as a result of the DWP harassment.

But he told her she could not possibly consider working because her life was “on a knife edge”, and he wrote to the jobcentre to explain the seriousness of her medical condition.

She has now lost the use of her last working kidney, which she received in a transplant in 1995, and is convinced that the stress of the jobcentre harassment speeded up that process.

Campbell said: “In the end, because of the harassment and the stress they put me under, I lost my kidney. I was harassed and harassed and harassed and now they have broken me.”

She had been forced to reapply for employment and support allowance (ESA) last autumn after her health deteriorated.

Atos Healthcare – the company that assesses “fitness for work” – told her she would not need a face-to-face assessment and would be placed straight into the support group, for those who do not need to take steps to return to work.

But DWP’s own decision-makers placed her instead in the work-related activity group (WRAG), which meant she would need to attend work-focused interviews, even though she made it clear that she had a job to go back to – she does legal agency work – when she was well enough.

Campbell is currently receiving dialysis for 12 hours a week and is back in the support group, but is now facing yet another reassessment of her fitness for work in September.

She said: “I am taking legal action for my dignity and self-respect and right to treatment, but also for other people who are more vulnerable than I am.

“I want people to see what this jobcentre is doing and how we are being treated and what’s happening to us. I want to see changes to the way people are treated by the DWP.”

Frances Lipman, a public lawyer with Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, who is representing Campbell, said her client had been treated with “absolutely no regard to her personal circumstances”.

“She was telephoned while undergoing a medical procedure. She had warned the DWP just the day before that she was going into hospital and had received an assurance that no-one would contact her.

“All that seems to matter to the DWP is that their employment and support allowance claimants do this work-focused interview, regardless of their personal circumstances.

“It is an affront to Annemarie’s dignity as a human being that they did not try to make an adjustment to interview her at an alternative time.”

Lipman added: “We don’t know yet whether this is institutionalised practice within the DWP or whether it was just a particular member of staff.

“I know Annemarie would very much like an apology from them. That is more important to her than the damages. She wants her voice to be heard and for them to acknowledge what has happened to her.”

DWP has denied any harassment, and says the phone call “was pre-arranged as it would be for anyone in the WRAG who informs us they can’t make an appointment in person”.

It claims Campbell arranged for the jobcentre to call her about the work-focused interview on the day she was in hospital, but that she had warned that she might not be available because of the treatment.

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

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Tens of thousands lose their ESA as welfare reforms begin to bite

Tens of thousands of disabled people have lost all of their out-of-work disability benefits this week, thanks to new rules brought in by the government through its controversial Welfare Reform Act.

The act introduced a new one-year time limit on claiming the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) for those disabled people expected to move gradually towards work.

The new time limit was introduced retrospectively, which meant that claimants began to have their ESA removed on 30 April, even though the act only became law two months ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed that it expects 40,000 people from this work-related activity group (WRAG) to lose all of their ESA this week, with a further 60,000 losing their contributory ESA but becoming eligible for at least some ESA on the grounds of low income.

Those disabled people with higher support needs, who have been placed in the ESA support group, are not affected by the time limit.

The one-year limit was one of the most controversial aspects of the act, with the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low telling the government earlier this year that the measure would be “not only unfair but downright cruel”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said this week that the time limit would increase the number of disabled people living in poverty, with some losing more than £90 a week.

Neil Coyle, DR UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said the new measure would only penalise disabled people who have worked in the past, as only those who have made national insurance contributions qualify for contributory ESA.

He called on the government to monitor the impact of the new time limit closely.

In its own equality impact assessment (EIA) of the measure last October, DWP conceded that the policy would affect about 700,000 people by 2015-16, with about 280,000 of them losing all of their ESA.

DWP estimates suggest that disabled people hitting the one-year time limit will lose an average £32 per week for men, and £43 for women.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The welfare system must support those with the most need.

“ESA for people who could be expected to get back into work was never intended to be a long-term benefit and the time limit of one year strikes the best balance between recognising that some people need extra help to enter the workplace and that the taxpayer cannot afford to support people indefinitely who could return to employment.”

She added: “Although a person’s ESA has ended they may be entitled to other help such as housing benefit, council tax benefit or working tax credits.”

She said DWP would monitor the impact of the time limit through its “frontline operation” and by “making sure people know what other benefits may be available to them”.

She added: “In terms of helping people, even if you are not eligible for benefit you can continue to claim national insurance credits and be eligible for all the support to help you get closer to the labour market, such as the Work Programme.”

She said this was another way for DWP to “stay in touch” with former claimants.

For more information on ESA, visit the government’s benefits adviser online service.

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Government to continue sanctions for ESA work experience scheme

The government is pressing ahead with plans that could see disabled people lose their benefits if they drop out of a work experience scheme, despite backing down on imposing such sanctions on young people.

This week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) bowed to pressure from campaigners and businesses and removed the threat of benefit sanctions for unemployed young people on jobseeker’s allowance who drop out of a government work experience scheme.

But DWP has confirmed to Disability News Service that no such changes will be made to a similar scheme created for disabled people found eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – but capable of some “work-related activity”.

DWP insists that the work-related activity group (WRAG) scheme is part of the Work Programme – which the young people’s scheme is not – and that any work experience will only be carried out with the agreement of the disabled claimant, and would usually last for two to eight weeks.

DWP has already admitted that there will be no upper limit to how long the WRAG work experience could last.

It says the WRAG scheme is not “workfare” – being forced to work for your benefits – because participation will be voluntary and “not coercive”, although sanctions will be available for those who drop out halfway through for no reason.

Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said his organisation opposed the use of sanctions for disabled people on work schemes.

He said: “There are better ways of getting disabled people into work than compelling them with the threat of losing benefits.

“It does seem remarkable that a young person might not be compelled to do something that a disabled person with less resources and greater disadvantage is compelled to undertake.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The sanctions regime is an important part of the Work Programme, which is to help long-term unemployed people get back to work. What we are not doing is removing sanctions from the Work Programme.”

Asked if it was fair to impose sanctions on disabled people when those same sanctions had been dropped from the scheme for young people, she said: “The Work Programme provides tailored support. The provider would be aware of their individual circumstances. They would not put them on things that would not suit them. It’s not a prescriptive thing. It is tailored to individuals.”

Asked if DWP had concerns that it could be accused of discriminating against disabled people in the WRAG, she said: “No.”

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Research prompts call for government u-turn on benefits cut

The government should abandon plans to impose a time limit on claiming certain out-of-work disability benefits, say campaigners, after research showed only a tiny proportion of claimants are finding jobs.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) research showed that less than five per cent of disabled people who had been found not immediately “fit for work” had secured jobs over the course of more than a year.

The research analysed the results of a survey of disabled people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit (IB).

Of claimants placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG) – those expected to prepare for an eventual return to work – less than five per cent had found work.

The group had been claiming ESA since between April and June 2009, and were interviewed for the survey more than a year later.

Disability Alliance (DA) said the figures showed the government should rethink its plans to stop paying “contributory” ESA to those in the WRAG after one year, from 2012.

A DA spokesman said: “With government job cuts likely to increase the number of disabled people seeking work and more than 10 people seeking every current vacancy, employment prospects for disabled people look grim.

“DA hopes this DWP evidence will halt government plans to scrap access after one year for disabled people receiving contributions-based ESA in the work-related activity group.”

A second piece of DWP research has produced fresh evidence of concerns about the healthcare professionals (HCPs) used by the company Atos Healthcare to carry out work capability assessments (WCAs) for the government.

The research looks at the two pilot schemes that began in Aberdeen and Burnley last October as part of plans to reassess about 1.5 million long-term claimants of IB using the WCA, a test repeatedly criticised by disabled people as unfair, inaccurate and not fit for purpose.

The research found that while “some customers commented positively on the empathy and professionalism of the HCP conducting their assessment, negative reports of the tone, manner or approach of HCPs were reasonably common”.

It also describes how most of those found “fit for work” were “generally stunned and/or angry, although a few were unsurprised and admitted they felt ready to work”.

One man with a physical health condition who had been claiming IB for more than five years said he was “like a freshly boiled owl – incandescent with rage”, and described the decision to find him fit for work as “absolute nonsense” because his doctor’s certificate “automatically overrules their assessment”.

Despite such concerns, the report concludes that “by and large the reassessment process was working well”.

A DWP spokeswoman said the government wanted to ensure the WCA was “as fair and accurate as possible” and had accepted all the recommendations for improvements made by its independent reviewer, Professor Malcolm Harrington, while the test “continues to be kept under review”.

She said: “The government has made it clear that disabled people who can’t work won’t have to but we will also ensure that disabled people get the help they need to move into the jobs they want.”

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Work Programme bid winners ‘should do more on prejudice’

The organisations that have won major contracts under the government’s new Work Programme should do more to overcome the “prejudices” that still exist in the jobs market, according to a new report by MPs.

The work and pensions committee’s report says many employers remain “reluctant” to take on disabled employees, including those with mental health conditions.

The committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said the 18 “prime contractors” – all but three of which are private sector organisations – should play “a more active part in working with employers to persuade them of the need to be more open in their recruitment policies and more positive in employing someone with a disability”.

The committee said it welcomed many of the principles of the Work Programme, which “continue the direction” of the Labour government’s job schemes.

But it said there were still “many uncertainties around the programme”, and it made a number of recommendations for improvements.

It also warned of the “significant new challenge” of providing support for large numbers of former incapacity benefit (IB) claimants, with 1.5 million of them set to be reassessed for their “fitness to work” over the next three years.

The committee said that some of them “may face significant barriers to finding work and require a level of support that has not been delivered under previous programmes”.

The Work Programme – which will be implemented from next month – will see customers divided into eight groups, with higher payments for contractors who find jobs for those in the “harder to help” groups, such as former IB claimants.

This aims to prevent contractors focusing on those who are easier to help into employment, which happened with some providers under the previous government’s job schemes.

But the committee said that – despite the new payments scheme – it was still concerned that contractors could concentrate on those who were easier to place in work within each of the groups.

Dame Anne said: “We welcome the fact that the Work Programme will offer financial incentives to encourage service providers to support jobseekers who are harder to place in work.

“However, we remain concerned that these providers may still focus their efforts on the jobseekers who are easiest to help at the expense of those who face greater challenges, such as those with long-term health conditions.”

Among its recommendations, the committee called on the government to commission regular, independent reviews of the Work Programme.

The committee also said the government should clarify what would happen to former IB claimants who have been placed in the employment and support allowance (ESA) work related activity group (WRAG) and assessed as not yet ready to work, but who would only receive contributory ESA payments for one year, as a result of the coalition’s programme of spending cuts.

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