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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Artist will stare “fitness for work” fears in the face with public exposure of her bed life

An award-winning disabled artist is to spend three days in bed in front of an audience, in an attempt to portray the contradictions of her impairment, and the government’s “miserable, terrifying, punishing” fitness for work assessment regime.

The writer-director-activist Liz Crow is forced to spend much of her life in bed because of her impairment, but has always managed to keep that part of herself hidden from view.

“I have developed this incredibly stark way of living,” she says, “and what other people see of me in public spaces is not how I am for most of my life. Even the people close to me don’t really know me at the most extreme.”

In Bedding In, she will make her “twilight existence visible”, exposing the part of her life she spends in bed to public scrutiny, and for the first time “parading” this private self in public.

The piece, part of this year’s SPILL Festival of Performance, in Ipswich, is Crow’s response to the government’s harsh benefits reassessment programme.

But rather than lying low for fear of being penalised by the Department for Work and Pensions, she has decided to “stare that fear in the face”.

She is one of the hundreds of thousands of long-time incapacity benefit claimants who have been tested through the government’s reassessment programme, and subjected to the infamous work capability assessment, carried out by the government’s contractor Atos Healthcare.

Even though Crow has used a wheelchair for 26 years, Atos decided that she had no difficulty walking. She was placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those thought able to move towards paid work.

But she knows she cannot make herself available for work, and so – unless she wins her appeal – she has resigned herself to having her benefits taken away because of the inevitable failure to co-operate with the regime.

“The consequences are that I may have no income coming in and don’t know how as a single parent I will care for my child, let alone my home, etc.”

Less than two weeks after her performance ends, she will need to parade her private self again, when she appeals to a tribunal against the decision to place her in the WRAG.

Crow is clear that she wants Bedding In to be about the complexity of her impairment, and not its “tragedy”.
“I live a pretty good life with the complicated set of circumstances that I have got,” she says, “but if I step out of my bed then it is not seen as complexity or contradiction, and in the current benefits system it means you fall through the gaps.”

Each day during the performance at Ipswich Art School Gallery, members of the public will gather around her bed to discuss the work, and its politics. The hope is that Crow will take the “data” from these conversations and use them to further develop the piece.

“It is a political statement,” she says of the performance, “but it is also trying to make visible this kind of internal wrestling that goes on for a lot of us with the benefits stuff.

“Since I got personal assistants 15 years ago I have managed to find a kind of fragile security in my life. I have rarely earned but I have, I hope, contributed.

“Now the benefits thing has kicked in it has all gone. Suddenly I don’t feel I have any security left whatsoever.”
Even if she wins her appeal, she faces the likely prospect of being reassessed again in another year or so, and then again, and again.

“The idea that this is life now: that is just dire. There are hundreds of thousands of us going through this assessment. There is some small comfort that there are a lot of us in it together but it is not much comfort because of the toll it takes.

“I have this tiny amount of time when I am well enough to do stuff and I am looking at that time being taken away.

“It has been really hard to create the life I have got, a reasonable life, and this big system comes along with these politicians who are so extraordinarily removed from a life like mine and they demolish what I have built up.”

The whole process feels, she says, like “punishment”, not assessment, “an endless round of justifying myself and fighting for a grain of security”.

“There are layers and layers of why it is so hard. One of the things is that if you fall through the gaps, for the press it is evidence that you are a scrounger and a fraudster.”

She is among the many disabled activists who believe that this cruel assessment process – and the callous and incompetent way it is carried out by Atos – are responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of disabled people.

Even if these deaths are not caused by the process, she says, “actually they died among all this shit, their last few months were so miserable and so frightening, and I think that’s unforgivable. To condemn people to a really miserable last few months is diabolical.”

Crow feels there is an affinity between her performance and the direct action protest carried out by members of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) at Marble Arch in central London last weekend.

One of the reasons she is so impressed with DPAC’s campaigning work, she says, is that “they have created an incredible visible presence but have found ways for all sorts of people to contribute”, particularly through social media.

She also sees links with her most recent piece of work, Resistance, an award-winning video installation about the Aktion-T4 programme, which led to the targeted killing of as many as 200,000 disabled people, and possibly many more, in Nazi Germany.

She began working on Resistance in 2008, and started thinking about its themes several years earlier, and felt even then that there were contemporary “connections”.

“Those contemporary connections have just got stronger and stronger,” she says. “I am appalled to feel that we are under greater threat now than we have been in all the years I have been involved in activism.”

She points to newspaper reports of alleged disability benefit fraud and the use of language like “shirkers”, “scroungers” and “fakers” to describe disabled people. This kind of propaganda, she says, is “eerily familiar” from descriptions of pre-Holocaust Germany.

The “specifics” of what is happening now are not the same as in Nazi Germany, she adds, but “the values beneath it are, this idea that we are somehow dispensable, more dispensable than others”.

She also points to the Paralympics, which she says “makes the scrounger-fraudster rhetoric stronger, and leads to a backlash”.

There are even similarities between the Paralympic classification system, and the benefits assessment system. Both suit those who have a “bio-mechanical, quantifiable impairment”, rather than less clear and easily-determined impairments.

Would-be Paralympians with “nebulous impairments” fall through the gaps, she says, just as she and many tens of thousands of other disabled people have fallen through the yawning gaps in the benefits system.

Bedding In is part of Disability Arts Online’s Diverse Perspectives project, which is funded by Arts Council England, and is commissioning eight disabled artists to make new artwork that “sparks conversations and debate about the creative case for diversity”.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery from 1-3 November, from 11am to 6pm, as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich.

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Atos gets it wrong on one in five ‘fit for work’ recommendations

New government figures show that one in five decisions to find someone “fit for work” made by the company that carries out the controversial disability benefit test is wrong.

The statistics, released this week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), show that “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare are far more likely to make a mistake when finding someone fit for work than when finding someone not fit for work.

Of the claimants Atos found fit for work (for claims starting between October 2008 and November 2011), 20 per cent of those decisions were overturned either by DWP staff or appeal tribunals.

This means that, of the 771,100 people Atos decided were “fit for work”, 150,500 were later found – whether by DWP officials or a tribunal – to be eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

Of those 150,500 people, 13,800 disabled people were placed in the support group, for those disabled people with the highest support needs, who are not expected to carry out any work-related activity at all.

But Atos has been much more accurate with its assessments when recommending that claimants should be placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people eligible for ESA but expected to move gradually towards work – with 97 per cent of its decisions found to be accurate, and when placing people in the support group (99 per cent accurate).

The figures suggest that Atos is straining to find as many disabled people fit for work as possible.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: “This is evidence that whatever is happening, whether it is the contract [between Atos and DWP] that is at fault or indeed the way the [assessment] is being interpreted by Atos staff, they are getting it wrong in a very high proportion of cases.

“And to find out that almost 14,000 people were found fully fit for work when they should have been in the support group… that is a lot of people.”

An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “All benefit decisions are made by the DWP. We apply their criteria and policy to all of the assessments we provide which is why they are in line with the final decisions made in the majority of cases.”

The DWP has so far not been able to say whether it is concerned by a failure rate of one in five.

But a DWP spokesman said: “As the table shows, 80 per cent of Atos fit for work recommendations are agreed with at the final outcome.

“The final outcome figures include both the decision maker making a different decision and the decision being overturned at a tribunal. Previous appeals figures have shown that, overall, 15 per cent of all fit for work decisions are overturned at a tribunal.

“Very few people would appeal a support group or WRAG decision, so there is bound to be a difference in the numbers.”

Atos has faced repeated complaints and protests by disabled activists over its performance in carrying out the contract to perform work capability assessments, first introduced in October 2008.

Campaigners and some Labour politicians have criticised Atos for finding many people with serious health conditions “fit for work”, and so ineligible for ESA.

Last month, the user-led grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts held a week-long series of protests to complain at Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

North Ayrshire and Arran, told the meeting: “It is absolutely appalling that this government has proceeded with these proposals which must be going to have an absolutely devastating effect.

“Local authorities are not going to be able to take up the slack, even if they wish to.”

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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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Work capability tests: Media sparks horror with stories of ‘fakers’ and ‘shirkers’

Activists have attacked newspapers and the government over “appalling” coverage of the release of new statistics on claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released figures this week showing the number of disabled people found “fit for work” after being tested by the controversial work capability assessment (WCA).

The figures actually show that the proportion of claimants found fit for work – and so ineligible for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – is falling sharply.

But the Daily Express headlined its report with the words: “Sick benefits: 75 per cent are faking.”

The Daily Mail headlined its story: “Time’s up for the shirking classes: Just one in 14 incapacity claimants is unfit to work under new, tougher tests.”

In the wake of the media coverage, Dame Anne Begg MP, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, wrote to employment minister Chris Grayling.

Her committee published a report this week that criticised media coverage of the assessment process as often “irresponsible and inaccurate”, while calling on the government to take “more care” in the language it uses and how it presents its WCA statistics.

She called on Grayling in her letter to contact newspaper editors “to ensure that the reports they carry about ESA claims are factually correct and that they avoid pejorative terms such as ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ which are irresponsible and inaccurate”.

She told Disability News Service she was “really angry” with this week’s coverage of the government statistics.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said the latest stories were “appalling” and “almost beyond belief” and were “potentially creating hostility and hate crime” against disabled people.

Geoff Adams-Spink, a disabled journalist, disability equality consultant and director of Adams-Spink Ltd, said this week’s stories completely undermined the government’s claim that it was not responsible for the “anti-disability media coverage”.

He said the stories were clearly a result of DWP briefings “designed to create a hostile climate towards people who have support needs”.

The stories are just the latest to attract the anger of disabled people over the last year. In April, disabled activists demonstrated outside the Mail’s London offices to protest about the newspaper’s “disablist” and “defamatory” coverage of incapacity benefit reform.

This week’s Express story confuses new ESA claimants with those already claiming old-style incapacity benefit, who will be reassessed over the next three years and will be far less likely than new claimants to be found fit for work.

The Express also fails to mention that the WCA has been heavily criticised for being flawed, inflexible and unfair, with many people with significant support needs denied the benefit; and that 40 per cent of appeals against being turned down for ESA are successful, with up to 96 per cent successful when they have expert representation at their appeals.

The Mail headline and story suggest that successful ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people who will need support to return to work – are “workshy” and “shirking”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said it was aware of complaints about the Mail and Express stories, but declined to comment further.

This week’s media stories, and the government’s press release, fail to mention that the number of people being found “fit for work” actually fell dramatically between August 2010 and February 2011.

In August, 63 per cent of claimants who completed the WCA were found fit for work, with nine per cent placed in the support group (for those whose impairment prevents them working) and 27 per cent in the WRAG.

But by February this year, just 55 per cent were being found fit for work, with 12 per cent in the support group and 32 per cent in the WRAG.

A DWP spokeswoman claimed that “seasonality” could be affecting the figures, while claimants assessed as fit for work often take longer to process, so “fit for work proportions are most likely to increase as the later results come through”.

She said: “It is possible that there is a trend emerging, although it is still too early to say whether there is a change in the underlying data, or a result of the limitations in the data described above.”

When it was pointed out that the decline in numbers of those found fit for work appears to date back to last autumn, she declined to comment further.

Both the Express and the Mail declined to comment.

The DWP has yet to respond to Dame Anne’s letter to Grayling.

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Cameron’s constituent appeals for help after ‘inhuman’ Atos treatment

One of the prime minister’s disabled constituents has issued a personal plea for his help, after he was forced to appeal for the third time against an unfair and inaccurate assessment of his ability to work.

David Cameron promised to write to his own ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after Chris Caudle told him how he was treated during three work capability assessments (WCAs) carried out by “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare.

Atos has been subjected to a sustained and angry protest campaign from disabled activists over the poor quality of its work and the generosity of its contract with the DWP.

Caudle, who has to take morphine three times a day to deal with the pain of ankylosing spondylitis, told the prime minister at his constituency surgery last week that he was now waiting for his third appeal against the outcome of a WCA in as many years.

He has already won two appeals, and is so angry at the treatment he has received from Atos that he is considering legal action.

The first time Caudle was assessed, for a new claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – he was found fully fit for work.

Caudle won his appeal, and was one of the small number of disabled people placed in the “support group”, for those whose barriers to employment mean they do not have to carry out any work-related activity.

At his next WCA, he was forced to walk a quarter of a mile in agony from a car-park to the assessment centre, because he was told he could not park outside the building.

The journey took him 90 minutes and by the time he arrived at the centre he was “crying with pain”.

Caudle says he was only asked one question during the assessment – to confirm his name – and was subsequently placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those expected to prepare to return to work. Again he appealed successfully, and was placed back in the support group.

This year, he was called in for a third WCA and again placed in the WRAG. He has been told he may now have to wait until November to have his latest appeal heard.

Meanwhile, his benefits have been cut by £19.65 a week and will not be reinstated and backdated to the full amount until he wins the appeal. The previous two reductions in his benefits while he was waiting for appeals have destroyed his credit rating.

Caudle, from Eynsham, near Oxford, said the treatment he has received from Atos has been “inhuman”.

He said: “They don’t care how you feel when you get there. They don’t offer any help if you are in pain.

“They are almost like a production line. The doctors there just sit at the keyboard, typing.

“Every time I think, ‘why have they put me through all this pain and agony just to sit there?’ Every time I feel degraded.”

Susie Drohan, manager of Oxfordshire Welfare Rights (OWR), said the WCA was clearly “not fit for purpose” and was producing a “revolving door” of disabled people moving from assessments to appeals and back to assessments.

The organisation has a 96 per cent success rate for appeals against the outcomes of claims for ESA, she said.

Nick Turnill, an OWR case worker, who has supported Caudle, said: “Chris is a severely disabled man who is caught up in a process that is inflexible and, as presently constituted, not fit for purpose.”

Caudle said the prime minister concluded that Atos was “not carrying out the procedures as they should be carried out”.

He added: “You could see by his face that he was concerned. He seemed as though he wanted to do something about it.”

A DWP spokesman said he could not comment on individual cases, but that the review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington would make it “a fairer and more effective assessment” and reduce the number of appeals.

He said that a successful appeal “does not necessarily mean that the original decision was inaccurate”, because claimants often “produce new evidence” for their appeal.

And he said the DWP was also introducing measures to reduce appeal rates, which have been endorsed by Harrington.

An Atos spokeswoman said: “We definitely would not comment on individual cases.”

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