A Radical Activist Grandma writes… Lib Dems must make their voice heard on mental health and disability issues

Suzanne Fletcher had an experience many Lib Dems have experienced at the party’s conference: she’d prepared a speech but there was not time to call her during the debate. However, Lib Dem Voice is delighted, with Suzanne’s permission, to share her thoughts with our readers…

The speech I didn’t make at Lib Dem conference on the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) and Work Capability Assessments
First of all congratulations to the Disability Consortium for their well-run campaign to get people to come and vote in this debate, although I was certainly going to be here anyway, along with my colleagues from Stockton, voting for the well thought-out motion.

I am speaking as a long-standing worker at an advice agency, particularly on the impact of the assessment process of those with mental health and mental disability issues.

There are people who cannot go to assessment centres because of their disability, and have said so when applying for ESA, and provided medical evidence. And they still got an appointment. But even when ATOS (the healthcare disability assessment advisors) were told why they couldn’t keep the appointment, their benefit has still been stopped.

Some with memory problems and other mental health conditions have not been able to go on the day. Benefit is not supposed to stop whilst people are appealing, but it is stopped for non–attendance. Those that go to assessment centres have been treated with no sensitivity, and no understanding of their individual condition. One woman with mental health problems was very distressed because the person conducting the interview had not even looked at her, just concentrated on the computer screen, typing in her answers.

ATOS are using mechanical devices and tick boxes without looking at the individual and assessing innovatively. There is no flexibility. And it is completely disproportionate to stop welfare benefits for non attendance. They are not using GPs and or specialist nurses such as CPNs who know the claimant as they could and should be.

People can appeal, but it takes five to nine months for an appeal to be heard, and they are without benefits for all of that time. Wouldn’t it be better to make better decisions to cut down on the number of appeals? If they go down the line of making a new claim, that can take two months to be looked at, and further clogs up the system.

If there is to be no legal aid to fund specialist advice workers to support people in preparing for an appeal case, (not, note, expensive lawyers!), as is proposed, just who is going to take on this work, and exactly how will it work?
Independent research has shown that in the case of welfare benefits, for every £2 spent, £8.80 is saved.

So not enabling people to go to appeal when they need to helps nobody. Who wins? Not the client. And it is a cost to the public purse in repossessions, debt, and the costs of physical and mental health provision. All of these cost money to address.

Are we going to allow all of this to happen in a government that we are part of?

Suzanne Fletcher is a Lib Dem member in Stockport, often known within party circles as the ‘Radical Activist Grandma’!

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7 Comments

  • A real shame there wasn’t time for you to give this speech at conference.

    To be fair to the Coalition, they’ve set up an annual independent review (by Professor Harrington) and accepted pretty much all his recommendations in his first report. Find it here: http://bit.ly/fiZncI These changes will take a while to bed down before we see real improvements, but I think we should at least welcome the fact that this Government, unlike Labour, are trying to improve the WCA. I’m fairly sure that Harrington’s second year review is looking at mental health issues and fluctuating conditions.

    I absolutely agree that more needs to be done to improve the WCA. But this does mean welcoming what the government are doing and urging them to do more. It’s a sad indictment of Labour that it took a Conservative minister, Chris Grayling, to review and begin reforming the system. It’s up to Liberal Democrats to make sure he keeps on doing so.

  • @James: the ATOS tests have gotten *worse* under the Coalition, not better. In fact, the Coalition have dragged their feet in implementing Harrington’s recommendations and let the failed WCA continue in its current form. The test is not fit for purpose and should have been stopped already, yet the Coalition continues with it knowing it is deeply flawed and knowing it is failing a very large number of sick/disabled people, leading to a successful appeals rate of almost 80 when helped by a representative. The fact that successful appeals range between 37% and 80% tell you all you need to know about this test. Yet these appeals will soon have to stop if the legal aid cuts go through. So that %37-80 who are wrongly found “fit for work” will no longer be able to receive legal help with their appeals.

    Yes, Labour started this nasty process. The Coalition could have stopped it but they chose to continue with Labour’s way of doing it, but with extra nastiness and incompetence. And a new quagmire is now beginning to form: people found “fit for work” placed on JSA, who are not fit for work are now being denied JSA if they declare any reason why they cannot take an offered job, regardless if it is appropriate or not.

    So if ATOS and the DWP find you “fit for work” when you are ill, and if you declare an illness or disability as an obstacle to taking ANY job, you lose JSA as well. And then you’ve nothing. It’s a catch-22 this government has created for our weakest members of society.

    It says it all about “democracy” in 2011 that the sick and disabled are feeling the government’s largest cuts and vilified in the press. Throughout history it’s always been the weakest people government target in rough times.

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Sep '11 - 7:53pm

    ATOS are just doing what they were instructed to do. A subtlety here that most people miss is that Labour wrote the instructions – this is a holdover from the previous government.

    Those instructions do need to be changed. Unfortunately ATOS are now on a contract to carry out the current ones, which means an (expensive, time consuming) renegotiation… it’s an ugly mess.

    Continuing to remind the government of the need to sort this mess out is a good idea. At the same time, I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t already got the message and started working on changing it, so think “keep up the pressure so they prioritise this” rather than “blame the government”.

  • John Carlisle 29th Sep '11 - 8:40pm

    Suzanne
    Health, and not just mental health is the dog that did not bark at the conference. The NHS bill is an UTTER DISASTER; but there is no LibDem front against it; just a few with Shirley and Evan. This is not good enough. We will be cursed if the bill goes through as it will introduce privatisation; it will screw up GP practices and blow our, yes our investments in the NHS out of the water. As a pensioner, who was a successful businessman, I have paid about £120,000 in National Insurance. They are going to hand that over to some private company that will help GP consortia to spend it. That is THEFT.
    Last word from Dr Clive Peedell of the NHS: Legislation to change NHS from a planned and publicly accountable system to a regulated economic market
    Lansley Speech to NHS Confederation:
    “The first guiding principle is this: maximise competition”
    “The statutory formula should make clear that choice should be exercised by patients, or as close to the patient as possible, thereby maximising the number of purchasers and enhancing the prospects of competition, innovation and responsiveness to patients.”
    Maximise number of providers (AQP) and purchasers
    Removal of SoS responsibility. Denationalisation
    Likely to subject NHS to EU competition law. Privatisation
    Changes will be irreversible
    GET OUT PRESIDENT TO TAKE A STAND ON THIS, NOW.

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Sep '11 - 10:15pm

    We will be cursed if the bill goes through as it will introduce privatisation

    No it won’t. It explicitly forbids this.

    I have paid about £120,000 in National Insurance. They are going to hand that over to some private company that will help GP consortia to spend it

    You’re just getting silly now – that doesn’t even make sense. How can it simultaneously be given to a private company and spent by a GP consortium?

  • John Carlisle 30th Sep '11 - 8:06am

    Andrew
    Explain this to me as to why it is not privatisation:
    – “Any willing/qualified provider” and GP Consortia buying in commissioning support (e.g FESC)
    – 25% of “GP pathfinders” have already taken on private sector support. Sheffield NHS Trust already instructed to find outside providers for six key services.
    – NHS Commissioning Board and Monitor will stimulate market competition. Is that not a private sector paradigm? Did not the Orange Book encourage it, i.e. The Orange Book (2004) notoriously advocated a social insurance system with private providers to replace the NHS (Simon Kovar, 2010)?

    As to my silliness, here is a quote from the BMA: “£20 billion efficiency savings will place huge pressure on GP Consortia to ration care. “Rationing bodies”. Finance driven decision making.” So, who will the consortia call in to help? Private companies. I will be happy to send you a list. Any of my investment spent on private companies and not on the NHS is theft. Got it?

  • Andrew Suffield 30th Sep '11 - 7:35pm

    Explain this to me as to why it is not privatisation:

    Privatisation is when you take a state-run organisation and sell it to private owners.

    – “Any willing/qualified provider” and GP Consortia buying in commissioning support (e.g FESC)

    Neither of these involve selling any state-owned things to private owners. Also logistical support is already outsourced to private companies in the current system, so no change there.

    “Any willing provider” is combined with “the NHS will continue to provide a comprehensive service” to mean that patients will have a genuine choice: go to the NHS hospital, or anybody else that is willing to provide healthcare services, and either way the government pays the same amount for their healthcare. That is not privatisation, it’s just finally breaking down the state monopoly. It’s liberal and it’s what people have been campaigning for.

    25% of “GP pathfinders” have already taken on private sector support. Sheffield NHS Trust already instructed to find outside providers for six key services.

    Also nothing new, private sector support via outsourcing is how the NHS has worked for years. Still no privatisation in sight.

    NHS Commissioning Board and Monitor will stimulate market competition. Is that not a private sector paradigm?

    Still not privatisation.

    Any of my investment spent on private companies and not on the NHS is theft.

    I think this is the real problem: you have an irrational hatred of the existence of private companies and you’ve heard the word “privatisation” somewhere and think people are talking about the same thing.

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