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 134.

    My wife whilst recovering from breast cancer (Mastectomy, chemotherapy, radio therapy) had to attend the local job centre for a monthly interview to establish how they could get her back to work. Daft as she had a job, just too ill to work on her hospital ward. The job centre interviewer was in a wheelchair with MS. If she could work anyone could. Left alone to recover, she did go back to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    "Try harder!"
    The only relevent comment in your post was to do with winter fuel payments (and that is wrong - Tories changed it to include certain disabled groups)
    The fact that both you and I could (and needed) to come up with long lists of different benefits and criteria neatly highlights the problem with the system - too complicated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    #121 Sarah - "Reasonable" - It is the excuse that is constantly used to deny the disabled the "priority" that everybody assumes they get. The definition that matters is "vulnerable" and its relevance to housing priority is constantly abused. Beyond the statutory definition of: 16-17 and not in care; with dependants; pregnant - vulnerable means whatever the local housing officer decides it means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    what annoys me about the welfare is the people I see up the rhonnda.These are people who will limp into the dole office on a stick and then when they are out of sight the limp cures itself as they they make their way to their dealer and then on to the dog fighting.there is far to much abuse in the system.I think they should stop the welfare state for a year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    @115 PaulRM

    Reasonable preference doesn't have to be more preference, although it often is in practice. It depends on the local authority's policy.

    Also there are few disabilities that wouldn't put a person in the priority need category for a homeless application as the test is whether or not the person would be more vulnerable and less able to cope than the average street homeless person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.


    2 Minutes ago

    "Semi-disabled" could level the playing field with a small amount of help but without opening the floodgates to disability benefits

    There is a system already in place for that, it is called DLA, it has differing levels of benefits which enable disabled people to live, and indeed work

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Flexham62 & Rickymeister. SPOT ON! Thank you.

    Are you listening Grayling & Cameron?

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    So if someone is disabled and unable to work then as a civilised society we must provide support to that person and their family to ensure a reasonable quality of life and some dignity, everyone is entitled to some dignity.

    If someone is capable and takes the mick then there needs to be punishment that is harsh enought to deter. We frequently see people caught and a mild telling off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    There should be a concept of 'semi-disabled'. Take working tax credits, if you're anything less than fully disabled you have to work 30 hours a week to qualify. You end up with a weird situation where the better your health is the more entitled you are to the money. "Semi-disabled" could level the playing field with a small amount of help but without opening the floodgates to disability benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    "So apply for your DLA to pay for your extra treatment. Problem solved!!"
    I'll certainly look into it, chances are I won't qualify - the system is polarised to prevent any help for those who want to help themselves. It comes full circle to the first comment I posted where I pointed out the problem was due to someone having to make a decision about who is in need and who isn't

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    My brother had a bad back years ago. Drugs and an operation cured it, but he never stopped claiming even though he threw away his stick, sold his mobility scooter and fathered 12 kids for whom he pays nothing! At his medical last year he knew exactly how to fool the nurse and went off smugly to work on his market stall the next day! Weed out the frauds now and give the money to those who need it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    I have just won my esa tribunal after failing my assessment with 0 points, not bad to say in the time it had taken to get from the assessment to tribunal I had to put up with 4 separate operations.
    Always good to see the assessments are done right!

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    It is glaring obvious that the tick box WCA assessment is not fit for purpose. You cannot fairly assess the huge number of different conditions, which have different effects on different people, with a series of tick box questions. The only qualified people are consultants, supplemented by gp's, ot's etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    115. PaulRM

    What you describe are the criteria for assessing homeless application. People who have been accepted as fitting all these criteria must be given a reasonable preference on the waiting list.

    People with disabilities that create accessibility issues within their property must also be given reasonable preference on the waiting list.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    @ 107 ryannc - I agree the tests were instigated by the last Government..I have gone through the test myself & it certainly is degrading. My choice of reading is varied that is why I can say that I am afreethinker. I hadn't realized we had all been as-simulated by the Borg as in Star Trek!! & that resistance is futile!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    It's very kind of ministers not to 'write off' claimants' lives, but truth be told, that alternative is unreal. We've been desensitized to accept an intensification of the revived poor law process. Our system's unique outside the US and now, it refuses to listen to claimants' doctors, and we have no right to a sick-note. There have been suicides and breakdowns. Don't listen to official lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.


    The idealogy of free thinking I agree with but the article, in a paper who will actively oppose any current government proposal, was about the case of one person who, on the face of it, merits DLA . However it is one case out of millions - something needs to be done so that those who need help receive it and those who are on the 'take' don't. Do you have an alternate proposal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    @Council_Employee - so somebody who may be in constant pain everyday or has a life limiting illness has a better standard of living in you eyes?What is the standard council weekly wage?Minimum wage approx £212 for 35 hour week, if you are lucky you get that a fortnight on ESA/IB and no help with rent/council tax or mobility. This works out better than you how?@Farkyss,we don't all get all you say

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    The assessments take a snapshot and assume that's how a person always is. That’s not so with many conditions.

    Also how many employers would take someone on who could only say if they’ll be in or not on a daily or even hourly basis? Not many I’d guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    #78 farkyss:FACT - priority on a housing list one must be: 1. Eligible for assistance (not an immigrant etc); 2. Homeless - not fed up living where you are; 3. Vulnerable (doesn't mean disabled); 4. Not intentionally homeless; 5. Have a local connection (eg - family). Council Tax benefit if you have little savings, otherwise no; Winter Fuel - only if 60+ (nothing to do with disability).Try harder!


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