Is the new disabled work benefit working?

Katherine Lass and Vic Shipsey Katherine Lass and Vic Shipsey both question the new tests

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Employment minister Chris Grayling says he is confident glitches in the system used to decide who is fit to work have been fixed. Two years after the new 'work capability test' was introduced, what's it like for those who go through the assessment?

Katherine Lass often feels self-conscious using her wheelchair in public.

"Often you get people looking at you as if to say, you can't be disabled. You're too young to be disabled," she said.

At 27, Katherine is one of the country's top wheelchair badminton players and a regular at live action role-play festivals, where she and her boyfriend act out scenes from Dungeons and Dragons games.

As she walks around her car and puts together her wheelchair, it's easy to see why some people might do a double-take. At first glance, Katherine looks fit and able.

But with fibromyalgia and ME, she says she is not capable of holding down a job and is one of many thousands of people claiming employment support allowance - a form of benefit paid to those who are medically unfit for work.

"I can do things in short bursts," Katherine told BBC Radio 4.

"But the way the fibromyalgia and ME affect me means that I can't do things repeatedly over a long period.

"Most jobs involve an eight-hour shift and I can't do that. I just get too tired."

'Too crude'

In order to qualify for employment support allowance, people like Katherine have to be assessed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

After filling in a form, most claimants are asked to attend a "work capability assessment".

These are carried out by the private company, Atos, which is paid £100m a year to produce medical reports on claimants' fitness for work. The reports are used by the DWP to help decide who qualifies for benefits.

Atos has been criticised by disability campaigners who say the system they use is too crude to deal fairly with people with complex health problems.

Programme information

  • Can You Touch Your Toes, presented by Anita Anand, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Tuesday 20 December.

"We're not saying that there shouldn't be a test to ensure that people are genuine claimants," said Dave Skull from the mental health group, Mad Pride.

"But none of this is about actually helping people to get back into work.

"It's really all about cutting the benefits bill. It's a mechanical tick box process."

Employment minister Chris Grayling insists there are no targets and says the system is about transforming lives by helping people back to work.

"What we have in this country is more than two million people on incapacity benefit, many of whom have been on it for years and years and years," he says.

"Effectively the system has said, 'you're on benefits, we'll write you off for the rest of your life'. And I just don't think that's good enough."

Atos won the contract to assess new claimants for employment support allowance under the previous government, which also took the decision to phase out the old incapacity benefit and set a timetable for reassessing incapacity benefit claimants.

Mr Grayling decided to get Atos to reassess those claimants too.

Shortly after her assessment, Katherine received a letter from the DWP telling her that she had been found fit for work. She scored zero points in her assessment. Claimants generally need 15 points or more to qualify for employment support allowance.

"When I got the medical report, I had to check it was my name and National Insurance number on the front," said Katherine.

"It was so inaccurate that I honestly thought they'd sent me someone else's by mistake.

"One of the things that really got to me was from the physical examination.

"It said that all my movements appeared pain free even though I had cried out in pain several times during the assessment."

Katherine appealed against the decision and took her case to a benefits tribunal.

Sleepless nights

There she was awarded 30 points and so qualified for employment support allowance - though she will have to be reassessed in six months.

Mr Grayling says the system has been improved since Katherine was assessed in January.

A rolling review has been put in place and he has given DWP staff greater freedom to over-rule the advice of Atos assessors.

But the tribunal system is clogged up with appeals against decisions made before the reforms and extra judges have been hired to try to clear the backlog.

The cost of the appeals is thought to be between £50m and £80m.

And even successful claimants say the system needs further fine-tuning.

Vic Shipsey is registered blind and was found unfit for work after being assessed in August - months after the system was improved.

He said: "At 58 and with my eye problems, it's a bit late for me to start looking for new trades.

"If they had only asked my eye surgeon, he could have told them that without me having to go through a medical examination.

"It was a very stressful and worrying time. I had a few sleepless nights. I don't see why it should be so stressful for genuine people."

Mr Grayling says he is "very confident" that the number of decisions being overturned on appeal will fall as a result of improvements to the assessment system.

"I happen to think that the system we inherited from the previous government was flawed," he says.

"It was too impersonal, it didn't do the job properly.

"I'm very confident that with a much more human touch as the whole process goes through, we'll have something where the decisions are more robust."

Can You Touch Your Toes? will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 20:00 GMT on Tuesday, December 20 or You can listen online to it here after it is broadcast.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @WorkingStiff not at all. Albert Einstein was a disabled (Dyspraxic and Aspie) genius. According to your logic all disabled people should be as he (or in this case Ms Lass is). Not so. I am slim with my disabilities, despite the fact I cannot exercise - this is because I've only been too ill to exercise for 18 months since my 22nd birthday. In 5 years time I may be bigger than my current size 10!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    So many have been brainwashed with the media hype over fraud, the numbers are low. There is less than 0.5% fraud with Disability Living Allowance, a non means tested benefit that even David Cameron claimed for his son. Incapacity Benefit is at around 1% but these figures are all rounded up, not down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    instead of targeting the disabled in order to cost cut, the Government should be looking at the truly lazy and feckless able bodied people out there. Walk around our local area and there are hundreds of them - clearly fit and clearly with no intention of ever working - why should they when benefits are so lucrative?

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I do get annoyed when I see very heavy people chugging around in these electric shopping carts. Of course their joints hurt - because they're carrying too much weight. And motorised carts just aid that problem. No one should ever be paid to sit at home and eat. Everyone should have to do what they can to contribute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.


    Your choice of reading certainly deosn't appear compatible with your username !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @ 6 Part of problem is many people that many people who hold trade licence's, lose them via health issues, then resign to benefits until 65, are unsuited to do other jobs of equal pay with the skills they have, sad but true, they get no help from government to retrain and no one will take on a 50+ person of dubious "skills" to retrain. More so in these troubled times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    These new assessments are just a way for the government to bully more people out of entitlement, My dad who is heavily disabled being paralised down one side of his body and having brain damage has had his disability benefits and mobility allowance reduced over time despite the numerous doctors saying he will never recover as he is only getting older, tireder and more senial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Right now i'm on ESA for severe bowel disease. The government want to get me back to work but im not even claiming for a lifetime, just until i can have the surgery to recover and live my life. The government doubt that im sick at all and dispute the validity of an illness covered by the governments own disability and discriminations act. If an employer can't discriminate against me, why can they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Good comment..he should get what he ''entitled'' to..
    However why is it you protest so vigorously that the Tax payer of this land cannot be afforded what they are ''entitled'' to.
    rigorous checks on fraudsters without the hysterical screams of unfairness, victimisation and all the other rants?
    the genuine disabled should applaud this measure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    To all those who think that the disabled will be treated with respect and believe the Governments shameful rhetoric that those genuine claimants will be looked after please read this link that I read on facebook. I wouldn't believe the clap trap that the Condem's keep spouting, disabled people will feel like 3rd class citizens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The Fickle Finger - Not at all I work for myself I am self employed I tender for work I look for opportunities. I apply for contracts from the NHS and local councils. So how is that a lack of imagination and will to achieve. Everything I do is down to me getting off my ass and doing something rather than moaning. However I am not so naive to realise that some people do find it harder to find work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    my body won't cope with too much.

    I do some voluntary work and have done ever since I graduated 2 1/2 years ago. I'm looking for part-time work but there's not much that I can do where I live and when I do apply I'm always turned down because I don't have experience. In the current climate, who wants to take on someone with little experience when they can employ someone with 10+ years of it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    If there were less lazy scroungers those in genuine need could get more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I don't understand the criteria here. I'm in a similar position to Katherine as regards fitness for work, but I've never claimed benefits because a lot of people, including Doctors would just view me as pathologically lazy, which doesn't attract much sympathy. It's hard to argue with as technically thats what the condition is, it's a emotional difficulty with doing work. Is it right I get nothing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.


    You make rather a fool of the deaf people who work, don't you? Yes, they have to get through problems that those around them don't have, but they have the will to do it. You could use a computer, couldn't you? Be a teacher in a deaf school? Electrics or plumbing? You are handicapped by a lack of imagination and will to achieve rather than your deafness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    so Miss Lass can play badmington to a high laevel,take part in festivals with her fella but can't hold down a job!lol whatever!what a joke the system is.just because you're in a chair doesn't mean you get a free ride for the rest of your wonder the welfare system is's being abused by those who think they can't work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    "IB/ESA provides just under £5200 a year for somebody who can't work - show me how anybody can live on that."
    Ontop of which they get priority (free) council housing, motability, either heavily discounted or waived council tax and free handouts for winter fuel. I'm not saying that they live in paradise, but the truth is inconvenient to your argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Whilst I agree that there are fraudulent claimants in the system, there are measures in place to detect them. Tax avoidance is a far bigger problem than benefits fraud and should be treated accordingly.
    For the record, I claimed ESA while I underwent councilling, training and job skills. I now work full-time - albeit as a temp. More support/flexibility is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    To all those attacking me, please listen to the programme first. The article presumably has limited space and can't include everything. Yes, I play sport at a fairly high level, but I usually can't do all the training, I can do some and then have to rest before rejoining the others because otherwise I push myself too far. There aren't many tournaments I go to because I can't afford it and because

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Oh come on farkyss benefits like Disability Living Allowance and Tax Credits are national and nothing to do with the NHS. If you can't be bothered to put a claim in thats down to you and nobody else. Put simply you are suffering unneccessarily. Stand up for your rights and get what you are entitled to and stop complaining!!


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