A few thoughts after Matt’s brave post – we have to make the system more realistic, fair and compassionate

It’s impossible to read Matt’s brave post on his battles not just with his own severe illnesses, but with the welfare system without feeling deeply moved. I felt upset and angry at the many failures of the state to give him the care and support he needs. I’m not just talking about medical care. It’s about having to fight for the benefits which put food on the table and keep a roof over his head. A liberal society takes care of those who are too ill to make their own living. There can never be a compromise on this. I am so grateful for Matt for giving us such an insight into the problems he’s faced. These real-life examples help us fight those whose attitudes to the vulnerable are based on ill-informed prejudice and political agenda.

Three things struck me from Matt’s post and the comments thread that follows.

The Work Capability Assessment is far from being fit for purpose.

I’ve written a lot about how the WCA bears little relevance to the practicalities of actually doing a job. Four years ago, I could barely walk the length of myself after coming down with Glandular Fever. This is not a disease you want to deal with at any age, but contracting it in your 40s is unwise. It took me two years to properly recover. During that time I could operate a washing machine, lift my hands over my head, on some days walk to the end of the street or any of the other tick box things. But I’d have been exhausted even by the process of getting to work, let alone actually spending 8 hours there every day. There is still not enough recognition of the effects of fluctuating conditions and mental health problems.

If an assessment process is to be successful, people have to have confidence that it’s fair and will produce the correct outcomes. We still have a situation where almost 4 in 10 decisions which are appealed are found to be wrong. That’s just not good enough. Every appeal involves a huge amount of stress on the claimant. As Matt says in the comments to his article, it can be difficult to get the evidence together. It took him years to discover that his GP didn’t have regular information from his mental health team. This meant that when ATOS wrote to the GP, the resulting report didn’t tell them very much so the claim was refused. How can a system be fair when it puts so many barriers in the claimant’s way?

Why are people who are clearly very ill constantly re-assessed?

I think that there are situations where people who are sick or disabled can, with the right support, get themselves back to work. That support has to be respectful, individually tailored, of high quality and helpful. The focus must always be on what’s best for that person, not saving the Government money. I don’t think it’s right to simply write people off when with some help, they could hold down a job and have a much better quality of life. That is a liberal and liberating approach and I don’t think the Government have got anywhere near to that yet.

There are others, though, who are unlikely to get better. What possible use is it to anyone to keep putting them through stressful assessments? Even those in the Support Group of Employment and Support Allowance have to undergo periodic reassessment. The DWP decision maker decides how often but it has to happen at least every 3 years. Surely that process should presume that if nothing has changed, then benefits should continue, and whoever is conducting it should collect the evidence themselves from the specialists treating the person. To get into the Support Group you have to be pretty sick. You shouldn’t then have the stress of getting evidence together. It should be done for you.

It strikes me that if the money that was spent on Matt’s annual reassessments and subsequent appeals had been spent on giving him the therapy he needed at an earlier stage, he might be in a better situation now.

Words can be as hurtful as sticks and stones

Matt spoke about how it made him feel when he heard Conservative ministers insinuate that people like him were shirkers, looking for something for nothing.

 I feel penalised and ostracised for being unwell, like I’m a burden on the state

The awful language that is used by Conservative ministers to promote these policies makes people increasingly resentful to anyone who is on welfare.

You will never find Liberal Democrats using the sort of language favoured by George Osborne, David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith but that’s not enough. They actually need to say out loud that it’s wrong to talk about people on benefits like that and why. We can’t stand by while our coalition partners fuel a culture that makes scapegoats out of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I wrote the other day that there might be the odd good thing behind Osborne’s rhetoric and I was called all sorts of names for my troubles. All I was trying to say was that teaching people to read and write and making sure that they had access to decent therapy for addiction, for example, might be a good thing if it was good quality and personally tailored to the individual’s needs. If it’s on the lines of the intensive help offered to troubled families, then it might be worth doing. It’s scratching at the surface, though. Everyone I know on benefits says that they feel like they are treated like criminals by the system, whichever government was in power. That whole culture and approach needs to change, for the sake of Matt and so many others.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • “They actually need to say out loud that it’s wrong to talk about people on benefits like that and why. We can’t stand by while our coalition partners fuel a culture that makes scapegoats out of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

    This is so true and is indicative of one of the major problems of this coalition. Too often, on too may subjects, it appears that the Tory line is being supported willingly (either through supportive speeches or the lack of a definitive contradictory comment from a senior Lib Dem). I expect Lib Dems to have to grit their teeth and walk through the lobby with Tories on things they do not support – that’s just a fact of coalitions. I object to the back slapping and cheering when supporting Tory policies in the House of Commons.

    Clegg had the chance to differentiate in his phone in and didn’t really pull it off. I can kind of forgive this as it is a live show, but the next few weeks will be key. Let’s see more of the Nick that condemned the language of the Daily Mail when dealing with their friends on the Tory party…

  • Chris Randall 5th Oct '13 - 11:05am

    Its not only wrong it is counter productive, but they were still trying to brief against the “BedroomTax” at conference. I really don’t think they realise how much hurt and how stupid they sound trying to foist these decisions they voted for as “in Fairness” nor do they realise how much arm they do with this silly childish behaviour the best answer when caught is to say sorry quickly and as early as possible. It has taken me a candidate until monday to renew my membership why, not because I am not a Lib Dem, but because I don’t believe the leadership is ,I believe the are pro EU Tories. It is the only thing that explains their attitude to the sick, disabled and the poor.

  • Caron.

    Thank you for your editorial piece

    I am touched that there are people like yourself that will give a voice to those who feel as though they have no voice at all.

    You really must know how what you are saying and doing will give a sense of hope to so many vulnerable people, A source of comfort knowing that there is still people out there who willing to call our political leaders to account.

    People like me can only do so much, we can , if given the opportunity to talk about our experiences and the difficulties that we are facing. But it means nothing if we do not have people such as yourself and others who have been so kind too express their thoughts on these articles and what can be done about it.
    The Government unfortunately will not listen to the voices of the vulnerable {our votes don’t count} or that’s how it seems. But they will have to listen to the voices of others who are outraged by all this and whose votes they do need to win elections.

    So again Thank you Caron and thank you to all of you on LIb Dem Voice who are being supportive and are prepared to discuss these issues.

  • I just want to share with you something else that I have found when applying for ESA, formerly Incapacity benefit and DLA. I have not been through the process of PIP yet, but I have no reason to doubt that it will be any different to the other benefits that I have received.
    Like I said in the other article, I found out the hard way about the lack of communication between my GP and the mental health team. It was not until I ended applying for my entire medical files to be sent to me that I saw just how bad this was.
    I had to apply for separate records. One to my GP for their records and for my mental health records to the Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health NHS.
    It was when I got the two to compare that I could see that there was a complete lack of communication between the 2. This sort of explained the reasons why I had had so much trouble with the benefits office in the past (I think)
    Since finding that out, I now always make sure that my GP is regularly updated by my therapist with what is going on, to ensure he has a better understanding of my mental health disabilities and how they affects me . I think it is vitally important for him to have a better understanding, rather than just supplying me with medication anyway.
    My experience with the DWP and ATOS has been this…
    Whenever I have had to fill out a application form for benefits , I always send that form off along with ”all” the supporting evidence from both my GP and from my therapist. You would think that this would be enough to support your application for disability benefits. It has been my experience that this is never the case. You still get your benefits refused despite the abundance of evidence you have. You then have to ask for a “review” of the decision. And you then have to go through the trauma of obtaining more supporting evidence. Sometimes this “extra evidence” is then accepted upon review and the original decision is overturned, sometimes it is not and you end up going to a full on appeal at the tribunal. My point is though, it does you no good to send off “ALL” your evidence in one hit hoping that ATOS or the DWP will come to the right decision first time round. In my experience that just does not happen. It’s always best to have something held back to use for the next stage.
    It is an absolute ludicrous, unfair and traumatic position to be in, you almost need to have a degree in law and being experienced in putting a case together to present to a court. Vulnerable people should never ever be put in that kind of position. Most of us struggle just to get through a “normal” day.
    There are organisations out there that can help vulnerable people, CAB, Disability Rights, Mind etc. but these resources are now so scarce and there is such a huge demand on these services, there just are not the resources to help everyone who needs it.
    Then there is the added cost of obtaining this evidence.
    My currents ESA is paid at £110 a week. Whenever my ESA comes up for renewal these are the costs I incure for my renewal application.
    I already spend £40 a week on “private therapy”
    A supporting statement from my GP costs £25.00. That’s not My GP’s fault, that is the rule of the practice manager.
    A supporting statement from my therapists cost £40.00. She charges me what she would for an hours session. (I can not blame her, she has to earn a living also, she is not a charity)
    My whole weeks ESA Benefit has been swallowed up in Therapy and statements.
    That surely is unfair, surely that can not be right that I am having to go through all the trauma and expense of gathering this “evidence” It is exhausting emotionally and financially.
    I think once a patient has been assessed once and placed in the (Support Group) then the onus should be on the DWP and ATOS to gather and foot the expense of future medical evidence when a persons claim comes up for renewal. Surely that is fair.
    I think there is also an argument in some circumstances for the “tell us once” I don’t think it is right that every year I should have to go through the ordeal of repeating my traumatic past on a benefit form. Especially when those applications keep getting turned down {it is hard not to feel judged and viewed as being unworthy} The benefit office has an abundance of medical “evidence” on file about me in the form of Dr statements, Therapists statements and even Psychological evidence supplied by a Clinical Psychologist. Is it to much to ask the benefits office when my benefits comes up for review, for them to contact the people in charge of my care if they want an update on how my disabilities are affecting me and if there has been any change to my conditions? I know It would make a huge difference to my life and I am sure would do for others also.

  • Philip Rolle 5th Oct '13 - 11:23pm

    Thatcher and Tebbit didn’t care that people lost their jobs, but I don’t recall that they attempted to demonise the unemployed ( and disabled ) in the way that this government has.

  • Martin Caffrey 6th Oct '13 - 7:12am

    If other people are being treated as shamefully as Matt then I believe it’s only a matter of time before an ATOS ‘health care professional’ or a coalition MP is attacked and seriously hurt. Perhaps there will be a rethink about this Conservative campaign to demonise the poor when this occurs.

    For example a neighbour with serious mental heath problems quite recently had an ATOS medical. He was seen by a health care professional with a background in physiotherapy???

    Does anyone remember the Stephen Timms incident in 2010?

  • Robert Wootton 7th Oct '13 - 11:32pm

    Ever since “the market” was introduced into the NHS, the vocation of compassion and caring takes second place to cost cutting and income generation.
    The NHS should be concerned with Health Creation. The diagnosis of physical and mental illness should be timely and a condition, once diagnosed, treatment should begin immediately.
    People with long term illness or disability both physical and mental should automatically be supported by the state and treated by the NHS for as long as the condition exists.
    I agree with Matt. The assessors should gather the evidence and get the statements from the health professionals.
    All dealings with government departments that deal with benefits are a stressful, bureaucratic nightmare for the claimants.

    The only government department that I have found to be user friendly and helpful in the past is HMRC! And they are inefficient. It was reported some years ago that 40 million telephone calls went unanswered. This statement may seem to be off topic. However, Matt’s experience of dealing with the machinations of bureaucracy is symptomatic of the whole governmental system not being fit for purpose.

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