Policy Motion on Employment Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments
Conference notes:This is great news for two reasons. The first is that I finally get to speak at conference (woo!) and practice my oratory. The second is that it might hopefully be the start of some real change in the way disabled people in this country are treated.
a) That the Government has stated an aim to move people off Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and into work.
b) Work Capability Assessments determining eligibility for ESA are carried out by the private company Atos Healthcare who are paid on a target based system for every claimant assessed fit to be removed from claiming ESA and back into work.
c) 70% of case rejection decisions by Atos assessments which go to appeal are subsequently overturned.
d) The appeal success rate is much higher for claimants with representation than those without.
e) The way in which work capability assessments are conducted has been regularly criticised by Parliamentary Inquiries and by the Tribunal Judiciary.
Conference believes that:
a) It is the duty of a compassionate society and the Government to provide the necessary support for those who are unable to support themselves.
b) The new Assessment procedure is "not fit for purpose".
c) The Work Capability Assessment is inaccurate.
d) Any medical assessments should be carried out by trained medical professionals.
e) Whilst recognising the understandable need to remove false claimants from the system, it is wrong to have a system where the primary focus is on keeping people from claiming the benefit and treating every claimant as a potential fraudster, rather than a focus on ensuring that the most vulnerable get the support they need.
f) A system where 70% of decisions are overturned at appeal is not cost effective due to the high cost of holding appeal tribunals and the associated administration costs.
g) The new Assessment procedure, whereby claimants are assessed by the use of a computer-generated questionnaire in which the Assessor uses a "tick box" technique, does not take into account the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
Conference calls for:
a) All medical components of Work Capability Assessments to be undertaken by trained professionals.
b) An overhaul of the assessment process moving the focus to ensuring greater accuracy in assessment, a less stressful assessment process and that the disabled get the support they need.
c) Any new or revised assessment process to take into account the claimant's medical history as provided by their GP and/or Consultant.
d) The replacement of the arbitrary time limit on the length claimants can claim ESA if they are put into the work related activity group with the introduction of a time limit dependent on individual circumstances.
e) The assessment criteria to be made clearer so that claimants and society in general understand what constitutes an illness which is so debilitating as to warrant ESA being paid.
f) The appeal process to be sped up and for all claimants going to appeal to be given access to adequate representation.
As a brief guide, the situation at the moment is as follows: the primary support disabled people who are unable to work receive is the Employment Support Allowance. Eligibility for the ESA is determined by means of a tick-box, points-based assessment system conducted by Atos Healthcare employees who quite frequently lack medical knowledge of the disabilities claimants have. The assessment system fails to take into account the wide range of disabilities and the time variant nature of some of them - for example, a person with Clinical Depression might well be able to pick a piece of paper up off the floor (one of the tests in the assessment) as long as they're on a good day but that still doesn't magically render them fit for work. Another problem with the assessment system is that medical evidence is not taken into account. So, someone who was born deaf, has been assessed and diagnosed as deaf by a range of medical professionals and who has all the medical documentation to prove it will not be considered disabled unless the assessment process says he is - all that medical evidence is worthless. Aside from this, a frequent complaint about the assessment process is the underhand way in which it is carried out. For example, one question asked at assessment is "do you watch television?" - if the person answers yes then they are assumed to be capable of sitting down for thirty minutes at a time.
So that's the assessment process. Because of its flaws, a vast majority of people denied support by the assessment system are forced to go through an expensive appeal process. Of those who do, 70% get the decisions overturned on appeal - primarily because the appeal tribunals allow medical evidence to be taken into account. Though even then claimants who have won at appeal are then called in for another assessment which again finds them ineligible for the ESA despite the tribunal's decision, forcing the poor individual to go through the whole appeal's process again. This is bonkers. In fact, the assessment system is so broken that even the person who designed it says so.
Now, even if a claimant is found eligible for ESA it's time limited for one year. After one year they will be expected to have found a job and ESA will be cut off. If they haven't got a job then tough luck. Now, aside from the obvious problem of people with disabilities that prevent them from ever working, how exactly are disabled people meant to be able to find jobs at a time when over a million able bodied people are unable to do so?
And people with ESA are utterly dependent on it. Many of them need it to pay for food, or heating or the rent. For many disabled people ESA is quite literally the only thing that keeps them from the gutter. So if they're denied it, or don't manage to find a job within a year, then they're cut off from aid from the welfare system. Disabled people often have medical expenses higher than those of most people (whilst medication is available on the NHS, that isn't always the case for things like walking sticks or carers) so they are even less able to cope than most people. And even if they somehow find a way to meet their expenses then the stressfulness of the entire procedure often makes their conditions worse. Put yourselves in the shoes of a person with depression, or multiple sclerosis, who has to go through an assessment process which works on the assumption that they are trying to cheat the system and is then unilaterally declared to be lying (for that is, in effect, what being rejected by the assessment process amounts to). Can you even begin to imagine the devastating impact that will have on them in addition to the worries of how they'll be able to pay their bills?
And that's not even beginning to mention the constant stream of stories in the media about "benefit scroungers" and "layabouts" trying to cheat the system. Even people who've successfully made it through the assessment process still have to deal with an attitude that they're just sponging off the system from people ranging all the way from council workers to newspaper columnists to cabinet ministers so just try and comprehend how it must feel to those who are having that message reinforced by the system itself? Oh, and for the record, the fraud rate for ESA is estimated to cost the taxpayer £25 million a year out of a welfare budget of tens of billions of pounds.
Now, like I said, that's just a brief summary of the situation and it completely glosses over the people at the heart of this and the heartbreaking stories that many of them have to tell. We've got a system that mistreats and neglects and humiliates the most vulnerable people in society. The only reason this situation came about under the last government and persists under this government is because the disabled lack a voice. They're easy to ignore. They're not photogenic and they don't count for many votes so both the media and the politicians ignore them. The system we have is worthy of a third world nation and not one of the wealthiest economies in the world.
Thankfully, the acceptance of the motion on to the agenda means that it will hopefully be passed by conference. And if it is passed by conference then hopefully our party's MPs will take note (as they did with the NHS motion back in March) and then they might just be able to get the government to change this appalling state of affairs. I hope so at any rate because, if not, then hundreds of the UK's most vulnerable people will, in some cases quite literally, be forced into the streets to fend for themselves.
If anyone reading this wants to help (and, assuming you have a heart I assume most of you will) then at the moment the motion desperately needs heavyweight supporters to speak in its favour at conference. If you know anyone who might be willing to do so then please leave a comment saying so. Thank you.