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 114.

    AT LAST! ... Someone tells of the corrupt, politically driven obscenity that the Disabled are subjected to. Whilst Bankers and businessmen steal Billions with Gov't backing, the most vulnerable in society have to beg for their lives. The Mentally Ill face Gestapo like treatment because there are'nt physical symptoms. Just don't get old or ill in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    "It is precisely because IB/ESA is set so low that claimants receive other assistance."
    Misses the point - someone argued they 'only' get £5200. I was pointing out this isn't the case. The same applies to unemployed/single mothers etc to a greater or lesser extent. If you want to compare incomes then you have to include all factors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    @farkyss: Motability, for example, is only available to those on DLA not ESA/IB. DLA is not based on someone's fitness for work, but based on the extra costs that someone faces because of a severe disability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    It's a shame that people seem to tar everybody with the same brush. If you claim ESA/IB you are a scrounger, a burden to the state and so on. I am unable to work due to have many physical health problems and have had to fight for people to take me seriously.@Farkyss, not everybody has free housing or entitled to reduced/waved council tax - I for one don't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Its not a perfect system but there has to be one. If appeals are winning how about pin pointing those who are obviously not doing their job properly at the original assessment - that may encourage them to be a little more careful in their box ticking - and free up cash used for appeals to support sick people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    @Council_Employee - my badminton club covers pretty much all the costs of going to tournamentsand I only go to 2, maybe 3, tournaments a year in the country, one of which is held by my local club, so it's not like it's coming out of the taxpayer's purse. As for the roleplaying, I usually do the non-player characters (aka crewing) and my boyfriend's system is that doing NPCs is free, not paid-for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    No it was just away of saving money at the expense of the sick 99% of these people do not stand a chance of getting a job mind you 20% of the population will be unemployed before this recession is over

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @85 "afreethinker" lol! The last government instigated these tests. But don't let that get in the way of blaming the coalition. After all what could be more unbiased and 'free-thinking' opinion than reading it in the Morning Star! dear oh dear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    farkyss - you can work and claim both tax credits and Disability Living Allowance. Disability Living Allowance is to pay for things that cost you more because of your disability, for example pay for physio, extra travel costs. So apply for your DLA to pay for your extra treatment. Problem solved!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    It is precisely because IB/ESA is set so low that claimants receive other assistance. Certain levels of disability reduce a person's ability to keep themselves warm as their body does not function like an able-bodied person's does.
    Or do you subscribe to the 'every one for themselves and the devil take the hindmost' philosophy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    86. working Stiff
    rigorous checks on fraudsters
    includes rigorous checks on those with genuine health issues that have to trust the advise given by qualified medical experts, which it appears has no value when deciding who is a fraudster and who is not for the allocation of benefits
    hysterical screams of unfairness, victimization
    no, just a comment on a idiotic situation that is wasting money

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Why should a disabled person qualify for a better standard of living than a Local Government employee?
    I think it right they should be kept off the bread line, but hard pressed local Gov't employees cant afford weekends away role playing, or to travel round the country to play badmington and we work for our money off the Government!

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The whole process is rigged to appease the bigots & right wing conservatives. Atos is a disgrace: commerce making profit out of ill-health. DWP is essentially a tool for government [any government] to push & pull the unemployed & disabled around in the name of political ideologies. There ARE NO JOBS, they are not helping us, they are complicit in dismantling welfare, so the rich get richer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    "Oh come on farkyss benefits like Disability Living Allowance and Tax Credits are national and nothing to do with the NHS."
    Exactly misses the point. With treatment I can work - the treatment isn't there. You cannot claim benefits and work at the same time (you immediately lose them again). I want to work to save for the lifestyle I aspire to, I can't do that on benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    @91. The Fickle Finger
    I do get annoyed when I see very heavy people chugging around in these electric shopping carts.
    Have you not thought that maybe their mobility problems stopped them being able to exercise and caused their weight gain?

    Since becoming significantly less mobile due to pain I am struggling to control my weight. Before this my weight was fairly constant throughout my life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    @46 working stiff

    A lot of the drugs that are given to treat the kind of conditions that put a person in a wheelchair also have the side effect of making them gain significant amounts of weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    @ 90 BadlyPackedKebab:

    My name is well chosen, I read many papers & comments & then I make up my own mind!!! you should try it!! it is very enlightening. The author of my link was also a guest columnist in the Independent, does that meet with your approval!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    And when I do the roleplay stuff, I usually take a fairly gentle role, mostly as photographer or as a talky character (I don't do combat because of pain and fatigue) and I always have to have rests; at weekend events I've always had to take a couple of naps each day because I'm so tired, and that's not even from combat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    working Stiff - The genuine disabled should applaud this measure.
    I agree something needs to be done to stop fraud but this is not the right way to go because its also causing the genuine disabled to suffer due to being assessed wrongly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    86.working Stiff - the genuinely disabled would support these tests if
    A/.It didn't assess people who are patently unfit for work as being able to
    B/.If when told they are fit to work there was some help to get skills that might help them, such as IT skills for those who have severe mobility needs, so they could work from home. But such provision is virtually non existant, depsite the rhetoric


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