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 274.

    And the top 1% pay approximately 8.5% of their income as tax. Is this fair? Nope, not one bit, when the bottom 90% pay an average of around 28% of their income.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    @ Loopy_S
    I would just like to point out before my comment, that I am very much for helping those who cannot help themselves but your comment "The disabled person has the right to expect a fair test.. "is only true because society allows it to be true. So in fact, it's not "actually" true. However the taxpayer, if so wishes, does have the right to decide what their money is spent on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Who told you that you had a '' right'' to Benefits? is the ''right'' to Benefits any stronger than the rights for a worker not to be taxed excessively ?
    Its a social contract whereby those who can pay do so for those who cannot.. Those who pay have the ''right'' to ensure the system they pay for is not abused.
    And please get off the wealthy mantra, Its the workers who pay..

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Everybody can be assessed as being able to do some sort of work, the question is where is that work? I'm sure McDonalds doesn't want burger turners in wheelchairs. This is just another way of discrediting the working classes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    "we get to supply you a little buggy" Maybe you should inform yourself about NHS electric wheelchair waiting times and criteria? Unable to walk outdoors, I can only walk 10 steps indoors. I cannot push a manual wheelchair. But because I can stand up I don't qualify and have to buy my own powerchair at a cost of £2000 or be housebound. NHS waiting list would be 18 months. Being disabled is no fun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    @261. billkruse
    If Chris Grayling genuinely thought the test was wrong when he inherited it, why did he keep on with it, why keep using Atos? Why didn't he stop the tests till they'd been fine-tuned and save the country a fortune in appeals?
    It suits the govt's current agenda - cutting costs - it doesn't really matter who suffers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    here's a good example of someone who should not have disability.A guy a few streets up from me that I know is to obese to work!what a joke our system is that allows you to eat yourself almost immobile,we get to supply you a little buggy just becuase they were to lazy to stay active and a lifetime of bad eating.why the hell are we paying for this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    So far you've shown no understanding as to how it can affect an individual. Oh, and yes I've satisfied the DWP that I meet the criteria for ESA. I've gone from doing a 60mile commute, an 8+hour work day, running a house, and walking long distances and not even noticing it to on a bad day being barely able to walk the 20 steps to the loo. I think I know far better than you about pain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    "The Tax payer has the right to expect and demand hard scrutiny of Benefits paid out." The disabled person has the right to expect a fair test performed by well qualified professionals, which will take into account the expert medical opinions of their doctors as well as their own day to day experiences and those of their carers. This would be to the benefit of all but is currently not happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    Tax payers have the right to Scrutiny, irrelevant of if they may find themselves in the same situation. Over 15 years a massive ''Entitlement'' culture has blossomed to the point it holds the tax payer in total contempt. for suggesting checks should be made, those who protest are the ones who most put the system in disrepute, Its they who are breaking the contract by refusing any Scrutiny..

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    I'm sorry if I sound harsh, but a few sleepless nights...come on! It’s plain to see there are some who take advantage and why the disabled are complaining at a system that's there to make sure someone else isn't fraudulently taking their benefits is completely outrageous. It really does show how selfish some people are.

  • Comment number 263.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    "How about as much energy being put into ensuring that wealthy individuals and corporations actually pay a fair share of taxes"
    The top 10% of earners pay 57% of the tax, the bottom 10% pay just 0.5%.
    There are plenty of flaws in the tax system, but the balance between percentages between top and bottom isn't one of them, the problem is the lack of linearity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    If Chris Grayling genuinely thought the test was wrong when he inherited it, why did he keep on with it, why keep using Atos? Why didn't he stop the tests till they'd been fine-tuned and save the country a fortune in appeals?

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    257.working Stiff
    How about as much energy being put into ensuring that wealthy individuals and corporations actually pay a fair share of taxes, rather than pillorying those justifiably claiming disability benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    "The job centre interviewer was in a wheelchair with MS. If she could work anyone could."________Rubbish. People used to say that about me. In an electric wheechair, incurable illness but working. I had to give up 2 years ago. Did I suddenly go from "brave and inspiring" to "lazy scrounger"? No.My illness simply had other ideas and got worse. Some people really are too sick to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    I am severely disabled myself and would love the chance to work. Having known lots of disabled people I can say categorically say that many of them would've been capable of working in some capacity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    It seems that many on this site believe that the Tax Payer has no right to demand Scrutiny of those on Benefits
    I think this says all that can be said on the matter. There MUST be massive pressure applied to the Govt from the Tax payers to push this Soft handed approach into a Hard cold look at the situation..
    As its obvious the recipients hold the Tax Payer in Contempt !

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    @173 BadlyPackedKebab

    That's not what I'm saying at all. I asked working Stiff for evidence when he said that I was wrong about it being a scientific evidence that some drugs prescribed to people with serious conditions cause them to gain weight. He came back with three dubious examples of people commiting fraud. Hardly a reasoned argument to back uphis assertion that most people are cheats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    I love the view that disability is a 'lifestyle choice' - I was born with a genetic disability (HMS), my forceps delivery brain damaged me & caused Dyspraxia. At 4 years old I developed W-ED. At 22 I developed Fibromyalgia like my Mother & her Mother. How did a foetus make a 'lifestyle choice' to inherit 2 genetic disabilities, be brain damaged at birth and develop a resulting illness 4yrs later?


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