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Panorama, Disabled or Faking it

Emma Emma | 16:52 UK time, Monday, 30 July 2012

Professor Malcom Harrington

Professor Malcolm Harrington

Disabled film-maker Kate Ansell directed tonight's Panorama about Employment Support Allowance and the controversial assessment used to determine if people are entitled to receive it. Here she blogs about the making of it and what you can expect to see.

Tonight, a Panorama investigation into Employment Support Allowance assessment and its impact on disabled people who are unable to work broadcasts on BBC-2. I directed the film, alongside producer Julia Berg and reporter Declan Lawn.

Yesterday, sitting in a darkened edit suite, finalising the script while struggling to open the childproof cap on my anti-spasmodic medication, rearranging the furniture so I could sit comfortably, groaning at the pile of Access to Work paperwork I have to complete when this is over, I did consider the ironies of the situation.

As most disabled people know, Employment Support Allowance was introduced in 2008 to replace Incapacity Benefit, and all 2.6 million IB claimants are in the process of being migrated across to ESA. Officially, a central reason for the change is that many people have claimed IB for a decade or more, and no one has ever asked them if they want to or can return to work. In practice, with almost a third of IB claimants who have been reassessed being found 'Fit For Work', many have wondered if this is instead an exercise in getting disabled people off benefit in a time of recession - I wanted to find out.

As someone with a significant impairment who does work, most of the time, I know that it's possible for disabled people to succeed in the workplace. I also know that it can be really difficult and, however much I want to work, I probably won't always be able to.

As a disabled person, I'm well aware of the noise that surrounds the Work Capability Assessment process which decides whether someone qualifies for ESA, and the many criticisms which have been levelled at it. As a journalist, I was keen to establish the reality of the situation. Declan, Julia and I set about finding out.

Along the way, we spoke not just to claimants, but to human beings involved in the Work Capability Assessment process, including five who have carried out the controversial face to face medical assessments. In an anonymised statement, one of those assessors told us there are pressures for healthcare professionals to see eight claimants a day, and not to put more claimants than average in the support group - the group where the highest benefit payout occurs and where the most severely disabled claimants, who are unlikely to work again, end up.

We also spoke to Professor Malcolm Harrington, currently carrying out an independent review of the process on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions, who told us the WCA is "patchy" and there are people currently going through the system who are suffering.

The DWP's review is due to last five years. Prof Harrington told us he is leaving at the end of this, his third year.

Panorama also met Andy King, who was placed in the 'Work-Related Activity Group' - for people who might, with support, be able to return to work. This occurred while he was in the Maudsley Hospital, sectioned under the Mental Health Act. At the time he was in a catatonic state and unable to speak. He has bipolar disorder and feels that being migrated from Incapacity Benefit to ESA contributed to the worsening of his health.

The Maudsley's dedicated welfare team told us that they have come across many similar cases of service users with severe psychiatric problems being inappropriately assessed, so much so that they say dealing with ESA claim problems like Andy's is putting pressure on hospital resources.

We met the family of Stephen Hill, who died of heart failure just 39 days after being found fit for work, and Sharon Thompson, who has successfully appealed against two decisions to put her in the 'Work Related Activity Group' despite a progressive impairment which leaves her in constant pain and requiring full time assistance from her husband.

ATOS Healthcare, who run the WCA tests on behalf of the DWP, deny there are any targets in their system, and acknowledge the process can be stressful for claimants. They say their staff are trained to treat people sympathetically and professionally, and they will investigate any serious suggestion their work has fallen below standard.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling told us the system is being improved and is about improving the lives of disabled people, rather than forcing them back to work.

You can watch the full Panorama report on BBC Two at 8:30pm tonight, or on iPlayer afterwards.


  • Comment number 1.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thought the programme was an excellent start...there is so much more to be told, so many stories. I hope that this will not be a one off but that further programmes will continue to highlight what government policy is doing to disabled lives.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm so angry after watching this that I'm physically shaking . I want to thank the programme makers for showing this .

    Being ill and disabled isn't a life style choice and disability benefits are not government hand outs , nor are they charity . They are paid for by tax payers as a safety net in case things go wrong.

    Thank you so much for highlighting what we have to go through.

  • Comment number 4.

    It makes all the difference when programmes like these are made by disabled people themselves. This was directed by disabled programme maker Kate Ansell and it really does show. I hope there are more where this came from - how about tackling the shift from DLA to PIP next....

  • Comment number 5.

    I've had to suffer the stress of a Court Tribunal to get the DWP decision overturned, but I'm still being called in for yet another 'back to work' interview within three months of winning my case. The whole system is set up to intimidate you into giving up your claim for benefit. It's totally inhuman, and as Neal Terry says above, there is much more still to be told.

  • Comment number 6.

    I work for the Citizens Advice Bureau and we see the fall out from this shameful system of assessment every day. One way in which we're hoping to give claimants a voice is by encouraging them to use Atos' internal complaints procedure, which is why we have produced this guide to help people direct and frame their complaints:

  • Comment number 7.

    Thank you for making and showing this program...hopefully this will be the start of disabled and sick people being treated like human beings again by this government...

  • Comment number 8.

    Maybe a programme about how they have stopped paying contributions based ESA totally, and if you live with a partner who works more than 16 hours a week, you can't claim income based ESA? All they pay now is a credit for your stamp towards your pension. Today I am going for another ATOS assessment, after winning my appeal last year!! If I live long enough to claim my pension I will be delighted!!!

  • Comment number 9.

    after waching the program last night it has left my wife and my self full of fear for the future as we are both dissabled,and know that we carnt hope to hold down a job, what is to happen to people like us?

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm one more who won a tribunal appeal after being rated at zero points at my ATOS medical. I had to go to the tribunal alone, as my local CAB were overloaded with people needing help.
    Three months after getting the decision (after six months of worry) a new medical questionnaire arrived, starting the pressure and insecurity all over again.
    It makes one ill. Seriously.

  • Comment number 11.

    ATOS Hitler would be proud of that organisation hope they sleep well at night !!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Andy King, I am glad you won your appeal, as the programme makers conclude - Atos cannot be fit for purpose and require radical overhaul; as does DWP in its infinite wisdom.
    I remember you from1989 at Goodge St., please use face book to contact me, if possible.
    Very Best wishes to you mate.


  • Comment number 13.

    It's worth noting that the very people who are making disabled peoples lives a misery ATOS health care are sponsoring the 2012 London para olympics, call me cynical but if that doesn't stink of hypocrisy i don't know what does.


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