Opinion: Must do better – Why benefit reforms are in need of reform

Over the last week, more and more articles have emerged regarding disability benefit (Employment Support Allowance) and Work Capability Assessments. I say articles – they read like horror stories. People with degenerative conditions being told to get themselves to the Jobcentre. People being asked to come to assessments in rooms that aren’t accessible to the disabled. It makes the blood run cold.

We have failed to show the public that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. They feel that this is purely a convenient way to squeeze a little more out of those already worst affected. Claimants are terrified that they will be whisked off benefits, told they are fit enough to work when they aren’t, to remain unemployed, and descend into poverty. The common consensus is that these reforms are a massive con. And quite frankly, they could be forgiven for thinking so.

The people who assess whether someone is fit for work, are working for a company called ATOS on a commission basis, and are paid for every claimant that they remove from the system. An assessment can take as little as 20 minutes, and they’re apparently under no obligation to listen to what a claimant’s GP has said. No wonder 70% of appeals are overturned.

Quite frankly, not only is this no way to run a benefits system, it is no way to treat the vulnerable in our society. These are the people we are supposed to be protecting. Yes, we must cut costs – but if we cannot do it without protecting the sick and the disabled, then why bother?

Now before we get carried away with the Big Bad Coalition kicking the sick, and eating babies and the rest of it – problems with ESA are longstanding, and were certainly present under the last government. ATOS were originally employed by Labour. Current reforms are exacerbating problems that have been around for years. This makes it even more important that we put Work Capability Assessments right, and make sure ESA reforms are support the people who need them. What we need to do is to reform our reforms.

Those unable to work should be entitled to a decent package of support – without a ridiculous time limit which will only harm those with medium to long term health problems. They deserve a proper assessment, by a trained medical professional. Claimants are not being treated fairly, and that must end.

I was pleased to see that so many of these issues were picked up on by the recent review by the Department of Work and Pensions. But there are still problems that must be addressed. We will get the chance to have our say in September, when the Liberal Youth Policy Motion on Employment Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments comes to conference. Let’s use the opportunity to send a clear message that more must be done to make these welfare reforms fairer.

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73 Comments

  • I have had first hand expirience of the assessment and the treatment i received was nothing short of a disgrace. Well done to Sophie and Liberal Youth for raising this via a conference motion.

    However our Parliamentary group haven’t been doing anything on this which is just not acceptable. I even raised it directly with Nick Clegg but didn’t get a response.

    I know New Labour started this process but its about time we put a stop to something which obviously designed to bully vulnerable people.

  • The outrageous contract signed with Atos was nothing other than state capture, and we cannot let it continue. New Labour ministers might have been OK with that sort of thing, and Tories may be happy to let it continue with a few tweaks, but it should be total anaethma to us. If we’re not going to stand up against it – and achieve radical reform rather than allowing ourselves to be fobbed off by Atos – then we might as well pack up.

  • It’s about time. This is, what, the second article posted on this in one year? Meanwhile, every time disabled groups write to the government, including LibDem ministers, we get fobbed off with excuses about the deficit, Labour’s mistakes, etc. Your very own Danny Alexander used to be making the most noise about the horrible, flawed WCA and yet he suddenly decided, once in government, that he now accepted the test and thought it was ok. Add this to the way you have basically gone along with every bit of what the Tories want on this (including basically ignoring the motion put forward at conference) and you realise why people such as myself feel nothing but disgust for the LibDems, just like the disgust we feel towards Labour and the Tories.

    Make no mistake: sick and disabled people are terrified and living in fear. The Guardian has been the only national paper reporting this fairly. And yes, we are terrified of this government.

    Sick and disabled people are being bullied by the government and the press. Disabled hate crime has risen dramatically in the past year alone and many disabled people have reported increased hostility and verbal and physical abuse from strangers. People have taken their lives over this. People are being found “fit for work” only to die weeks later. ATOS and the DWP, with help of the right-wing press, have been bullying, smearing and whipping up hate against disabled people. We are all classed as scroungers, even those of us who can work. Make no mistake: disabled and sick people feel threatened. I work for a charity helping disabled and sick people and what is happening to them is nothing less than a non-violent pogrom with only one goal: saving money. I’ve worked with disabled people for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.

    The press gets away with printing outright lies and ministers are simply “bemused”, doing nothing to correct said lies and distortions, but rather, feeding them further. Ministers, like Greyling, and your own Stephen Webb MP are opposed to a “real-life” test that measures ones ability to work or not based on scientific medical basis. They prefer ATOS’ tick-box, impersonal and cold way of determining fitness for work. They no longer take into account GPs and specialists’ testimonies. This test measures if you can do “some kind” of work, without taking into account fluctuating conditions or any of the other various nuances disabled people face, not to mention not taking account if these jobs exist or not. They know the jobs aren’t there, this is just about moving people onto JSA to save a few bob.

    And then there is the private sector who, by and large, refuse to engage with sick and disabled people. Most private companies refuse to modify workplace duties, or modify the workplace itself to accommodate sick or disabled people. It is simply not in their financial interests to do so. Society wants to blame the people on benefits for the fact that businesses won’t employ them. And now, with the financial situation remaining stagnant, how many companies are going to take on sick/disabled people, at great expense to themselves, when there are countless able-bodied people queuing up for work?

    What is happening to sick and disabled people in the UK is a disgrace. I’ve watched, over the past 30 years, sick and disabled people going from being treated well, and with respect, to now being one of the most hated, mistrusted and spat-upon groups of society.

    We did not cause the financial crash. But we are being asked to shoulder the burden of the deficit far more than the average person is. Everyone wrings their hands when pensioners are in poverty and have to choose between heating and food in the wintertime, yet everyone expects sick/disabled people to do the same and be thankful for it.

    In the 1930s, the Nazis briefed against the disabled in the press. They ran ad campaigns saying how much “these invalids” cost the average person in taxes. They cast the sick and disabled as weak, as scroungers who don’t contribute anything. They even gave doctors incentives to have people removed from the welfare register. They whipped up public hate and resentment against the disabled by falsifying and misinterpreting statistics. This is vastly similar to what you are doing in government now. Are you going to continue to go down this slippery slope? If hate crime is rising against our weakest members of society, then how far will you let this go? What has to be done for LibDems in Parliament to do something? How many more suicides or premature deaths will it take for you to vote against this nasty bill?

    This government, just like Labour, are pushing the most vulnerable members of society into further poverty. If you are disabled, you are far more likely to be on a low income than an able-bodied person. Our cold, money and profit-at-all-costs driven society now deems it acceptable to take even more from those who have the least. Taxing the rich and bankers is not an option: they’ll just go elsewhere. So taking from the disabled it is.

    This country has turned against its weakest members of society. It started with Labour and is continuing with you. You have the power to do something about this.

    All it takes for evil to triumph and all that…

  • I have to say I have been horrified by some of the stories emanating from this process. Having had some sort of problem with this myself I can understand the anger of some of the individuals who have been assessed as being capable of returning to work. We as a society just have to get used to the idea that some people just aren’t able to work either through a physical condition and just as importantly through a mental; condition. The efforts of the media (yes including the BBC) to criminalise claimants is truly disgusting giving publicity to the small minority who abuse the system.
    The Government should take more notice of a person’s GP when deciding who can and who can’t work, they know the patient best, which seems to be the Government’s view when reforming the NHS.

  • The Tory and then Labour links with insurance provider Unum in the design of welfare reforms since 1993 also make the blood run cold. There’s a history of them here:
    http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/articles/rutherford07.html

  • Well said.

    As the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches have pointed out in a joint letter to the government some of this is not about policy content but about the negative, “dog-whistle” language the coalition uses about people it deems to be scroungers. It is quite chilling to hear claimants dismissed as non-people with terms like “wasted lives” and “economically inactive”.

  • @Ruth Bright: and imagine what it is like, as a disabled person, to be accused of being a scrounger (even though I am lucky enough to be able to work myself). When sick and disabled people say they are terrified of going out, frightened for the future and many of us wishing we were all dead, we mean it. This is not hyperbole, we are genuinely terrified.

    The government has made us public enemy number one since they formed. Even Clegg hinted that disabled people on benefits who are too ill to work didn’t count in his “Alarm Clock Britain”.

  • You’re pointing the finger at Labour for the problems with ESA whilst entirely ignoring the fact that was this government that implemented the recent changes to WCA, including assessing claimants with imaginary wheelchairs on impossibly flat and smooth surfaces and deeming people as being perfectly able to communicate if they are able to write a single word, and this government who are reassessing IB claimants with this disablist and broken assessment scheme, and this government who are fanning the flames of disablist violence and discrimination with inaccurate and misleading press releases that demonise disabled people.

  • The problems with ATOS are widely known, what isn’t so widely known is that the Coalition have changed the Access to Work scheme so that there is less help available to employers and employees to find money to overcome the barriers that disability brings.

    The coalition are not only cutting benefits for the disabled, but they are cutting the funds available to help the disabled work! It’s utterly incoherent.

  • It’s all a bit late really to start being outraged now.

    Myself and others on this site, where making noises about this last year, warning others about what was happening and calling upon the party to support the sick and disabled against these unfair reforms and the disgraceful role of ATOS and their inability to assess people fairly.

    We pointed out time and time again, the failures of ATOS, The amount of EXTRA money, they are costing the tax payer, due to the high amount of cases that go to appeal and are subsequently won.

    The huge amount of stress they have caused to many sick and vulnerable people.

    People have committed suicide, because of these government reforms and the way they have been treated by ATOS and the DWP

    Many sick and disabled people are suffering from “EXTREME” hardship due to ATOS finding them “unfairly” fit for work and moved on to JSA.
    When someone appeals ATOS decision, they can claim Income Support at a 20% reduced rate than what they would be entitled to from JSA, whilst they await their appeal.
    Due to the massive amounts of decisions ATOS and the DWP are getting wrong, and the massive amount of appeals going to tribunals, some people are having to wait over 12 months to have their appeal heard. Sick and Disabled People having to live 12 Months living off Income Support paid at 20% less than JSA.
    (that is the true reason, why so many people drop their appeal cases, because they can not afford to lose sickness benefits as it is, let alone receive 20% less than someone who is on JSA)

    We screamed and shouted and pleaded for support for these people and we where ignored.

    Now stories are coming out in the media about the total failures of ATOS and DWP, and this site now decides to get vocal about it.
    It’s a bit late for all the Hundreds of Thousands of people, who have and still are being put through this shameful ordeal.

  • @George W. Potter:
    The time limit, more than anything else, is the most pernicious bit of the whole system and it should be a priority for our ministers to get it changed.

    As bad as the time limit is, IMO, it is still not the worst bit of the system. The worst bit is the government changing the goalposts which mean that illnesses and disabilities that have always been classed as severe enough to make someone eligible for benefit are now not considered so. One would think a deafblind person would be obviously unfit for most work. Not anymore. Even blind people with guide dogs are now no longer classed as having a disability of any sort by the DWP. Have no legs but use a wheelchair? Then you are not classed as having ANY mobility issues. Coming back from serving the country in Afghanistan with PTSD? Sorry, the test descriptors for mental illnesses, even violent ones, are now vastly reduced. People with six months or less left to live are being found “fit for work” even though the fact one is dying used to automatically give one benefit. People undergoing chemo are, of course, now “fit to work” as well.

    You see where this is going. These are people whose claims are being denied renewal and are now being labeled as “scroungers” or “cheats” by the press and the government, while that same press and government neglect to tell the public they’ve changed the goalposts dramatically. Yet the people such as myself who have been trying to raise this issue have been ignored, abused and accused of being a “Labour troll”.

    I am no friend of Labour, as they started this disgrace. But don’t confuse my trying to hold your party to account as support for Labour: they are no longer in government. YOU are.

  • Thanks for this piece. I have MS and am lucky to have supportive employers and family so that I can work. But- I am one relapse away from being subject to ATOS and the DWP’s hideous and inhumane treatment.

  • I voted for the Lib Dems at the election. I never have before. I thought your Constitution and principles were good and I was impressed by Nick Clegg on the TV debates. However, since then I have been disappointed and quite frankly shocked at the lack of outrage amongst Liberal Democrat MP’s and Lords about what is happening in the area of Welfare reform. It goes completely against the Constitution. I too wrote to Nick Clegg and got no response. I have also written to many Lib Dem MP’s and Lords and got no response from most and a half-hearted stock response from the rest. So, I want to say a huge thank you to Sophie for this article and also to George Potter for tabling the motion. I truly hope the young Lib Dems can make the rest of the party see sense.

    What has been going on is despicable and goes against every decent human principle, whatever party one is affiliated with. The corruption is certainly on a par with the recent News Corp scandal – but in this case it affects millions of very vulnerable people, the majority of whom cannot stand up for themselves. People have died. People have commited suicide. People are living in fear and becoming more ill because of it. Yet still nothing is done and the WCA continues to wrongly assess people. Improvements are suggested – but for four years time – by which time it will be too late. The WCA should be stopped until all improvements are made, or scrapped altogether and people’s medical Doctor’s and Consultant’s should give evidence to support their claims. They, afer all, are the experts.

    Over 10,000 people a WEEK are being pushed through the so-called ‘migration’ from Incapacity Benefit onto ESA. The backlog of appeals is enormous. Upt to 70% of decisions are found in favour of the claimant when they eventually get to tribunal, which can take 6 months. That is 6 months with no money for an ill and vulnerable person. Yet skewed statistics continue to be fed by the government to the Press and the Media in an effort to bias public opinion against us. And it is working – Disability Hate Crime is increasing daily. Sick and disabled people are being attacked physically and verbally, spat at in the street and are frightened to go out of their houses. This is not the kind of country I want to live in. Nor, I suspect, do most of you. It must be stopped, and soon, before even more damage is done.

  • Andrew Ducker has actually made a very good suggestion. If we’re paying people by commission for every person they get off sickness benefits then that creates a perverse incentive. A strong fine for every person that wins an appeal should even out that incentive somewhat. Governments should really be banned from handing out contracts, they always create perverse incentives.

    Trying to save money by cutting benefits to sick and disabled people will no doubt be a false economy if it means more hospital admissions or extra care.

  • I’m pleased to read this article and all the responses so far, I myself am disabled and is facing an assessment in the next few months, I have no illusions that I’ll be considered unfit for work since the discriptors changed on the 31st March this year, before this date they where considered tough but the latest ones are nothing sort of disgraceful, It’s possible for a person who has one arm, walks with a stick and has to stop every 250 yards as the pain is too much to be awarded zero points (you need 15 btw) in other words classed as FULLY FIT.
    But it gets worse, once he/she is told sign on he/she will be asked “is there anything that would stop you from getting any type of work” and they say yes, they have their benefit cut again as a punishment as they are considered to be putting barriers up to finding work.
    This is the reality for the majority of disabled these days and also for me personally

  • I am sorry but you are too late… already too many people have fallen foul to the assessments by Atos on behalf of the government, trying to hide behind Atos or “genuine sick and disabled will not suffer” is no longer working, the government is attacking the most vulnerable people in our society…
    There is no hiding behind Atos, not when the government is giving new contracts to the same company to retest DLA claimants (as though the current test for DLA is not hard enough already), I am utterly disgusted.

    Eventually the government will be held responsible, it is pure and simple a cost cutting exercise on the most vulnerable in society. Liberal Democrats as part of the government should be ashamed.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jul/24/atos-faces-critical-report-by-mps

  • “Letter to the Chair from the Secretary of State, 28 September 2010
    ATOS HEALTHCARE CONTRACT RENEWAL
    During the Select Committee’s evidence session on 15 September, I promised to write concerning the renewal of the Atos Healthcare contract.
    The original Medical Services Agreement was awarded in 1998 by the then Department of Social Security to Sema Group (which subsequently changed its name to SchlumbergerSema and latterly to Atos Healthcare). At that time the services delivered were to the Department for Social Security but following machinery of Government changes in 2001, the administration of some of the benefits covered by that contract migrated to other Government Departments, for example War Pension transferred to an Agency of the Ministry of Defence and Statutory Sick pay to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The Department for Work and Pensions (previously the Department for Social Security), remained responsible for the management of the overall Agreement.
    The Medical Services Agreement between Atos Healthcare and the Department for Work and Pensions was awarded on 15 March 2005 by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions following a competitive tender. The Agreement commenced on 1 September 2005 for a term of seven years with options to extend for consecutive terms of three and then two years. Such extensions were conditional on the evidence that they brought clear benefits to the Department outweighing competition. There is also provision to allow for up to twelve months extension if required, for example during a competition of the services.
    The Department for Work and Pensions may exercise a break option at any time, giving ATOS healthcare twelve months written notice. In addition the Agreement may be terminated early if Atos Healthcare is in default of its obligations under the Agreement.
    The scope of the Medical Services Agreement is to provide medical advice to, the Department for Work and Pensions; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Service Personnel and Veterans Agency and Tribunals Service, to support decisions in relation to a number of benefits and pensions. These include but are not limited to:
    — Incapacity benefits.
    — Employment and Support Allowance.
    — Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits.
    — Disability Living Allowance.
    — Attendance Allowance.
    — Statutory Sick Pay/Statutory Maternity Pay.
    — Child Trust Fund.
    — War Pension.
    — Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.
    — Financial Assistance Scheme.
    — Compensation Recovery Scheme.
    — Appeals Tribunal Service.
    The Agreement was amended in 2008 to incorporate Employment and Support Allowance. The Department has negotiated the terms of an extension to the contract to 2017 in order to allow for the completion of Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance migration. The extension will be subject to Atos Healthcare delivering substantial savings against the current estimated cost of £100 million per annum. I am still considering the merits of whether to extend the contract with Atos Healthcare. A final decision will be taken in the Autumn.”

    Interesting that last section is important. save us money or else… hmm not cost cutting then?

    Link http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmworpen/468/468we02.htm

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Jul '11 - 7:09pm

    People being asked to come to assessments in rooms that aren’t accessible to the disabled. It makes the blood run cold.

    That’s an odd reaction to regular old bureaucratic incompetence.

    Seriously, what do you think is going on here? They selected a room deliberately to make people miss assessments? They had the wheelchair ramps removed to cut down on benefits claims?

    Or they simply don’t have “mobility impairment” as a category on the form, and somebody screwed up when cross-checking against their records?

    There’s nothing sinister here. It’s just the usual gross incompetence of the civil service running the benefits system. And this is nothing new. It simply went largely unreported while Labour were in power.

    I’m no great fan of the benefits changes, but this article, like so many before it, is failing to apply Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  • @ Andrew Suffield –

    To push over 10,000 people a week through assessments at centres which are primarily being used for people who are sick and disabled which are woefully inadequate is just wrong. It is not just a matter of wheelchair ramps. This shows a fairly naieve appreciation of what is involved for the seriously ill people attempting to attend these centres.

    Atos lists only ONE disabled parking bay for the use of around a million claimants a year and more than 20% of its 141 medical assessment centres, that’s one in five, do not have wheelchair access.

    Out of all 141 Atos centres, only around 50 have dedicated parking on site and just one centre is listed as having disabled parking. And even then it’s only one single space. Other centres rely on public car parks, which may be five or ten minutes walk away. 31 of Atos’ medical examination centres are not even on the ground floor.

  • Andrew S – the parking issue may be incompetence, but it kind of fades into the background compared to the general perversion of government that is going on, and which in no way can be ascribed to “regular bureaucratic incompetence.” Andrew T – yes, nothing wrong with the principle of assessment, but that’s not the point – the point is that Atos is incentivised to turn people down (and the system was designed by Unum, an income insurance provider actively drumming up business from the situation).

  • This is all very nice. The fact is that as a party the lib dems are supporting Osbourne on this and the rest of his failing economic plans. The damage is already being done.

  • @ Andrew Tennant –

    The government just released the latest Access to Work statistics, which show that, in 2010/11 the total number of individuals helped by the scheme fell by just over 1400 compared to the previous year. So, they are unfairly assessing people as fit to work but at the same time the support to get people into work is diminishing and the unemployment rate is rising. No wonder Chris Grayling doesn’t want to allow a real-world test!!

    Here is an example of the kind of help that IS being offered – taken from another blog, name removed

    xxxxxx is quadraplegic as a result of a neurological condition. She can move her hands but has no strength in them, she uses an electric wheelchair. Recently, the DWP in its wisdom declared that she should could be made “work capable”. So they set up an interview for her… as a cashier in Primark!

    There was no nearby parking and what there was was only for 3 hours. Only the central aisle was wheelchair accessible. The counters were far too high and she could not reach the tills or pack the clothes. She couldn’t get in the stock room and couldn’t reach up to hang up clothes. She was unable to tidy up or operate a broom or vacuum cleaner.

    Needless to say, she didn’t get the job. But if this is an example of the government trying to get someone back to work, it was a major fail.

  • This is the current/new WCA (from March this year), you must reach 15 points to be classed as unfit for work
    http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/core.nsf/a/wr_esadescriptorslcwphysicalnew
    now apply them to the real world and the example I’ve previously stated above.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Jul '11 - 10:52pm

    Sophie, it is quite simply not true that ATOS are paid more if they remove people from claiming. This has been repeatedly denied by the govermemt and you do your case no good by stating it as a fact.

  • Its true that atos don’t get paid more for finding you fit for work, but they do get paid for each person regardless of the standard of their assesment. So many many people are found fit then appeal which is upheld but Atos don’t care as it makes no odds to them, no fines or come backs for example, and you cant deny that showing all those found fit for work must do wonders for future bids for the contract.

    All Disabled and sick people want is a fair test that takes into account your abiliity to hold a job, being able to pick up a pen, raise your arm does not prove this. Basic basic basic stuff like can you get up and out the house every day, can you stay awake and sit for hours at a time, can you concentrate and be attentive. Many of us have already worked most of our lives we didnt give up work beacuse we fancied a holiday, trust me suffering everyday is no holiday. Being forced to claim JSA or jump through hoops in the work related group is causing people great hardships, stress and anything that anyone is propsing to make it fair has many Disabled and sick peoples backing regardless of political party.

  • Barry George 27th Jul '11 - 11:23pm

    I am also pleased to read this article and to know that it will be brought up at conference. It is reassuring to know that my anger and disgust at the way the disabled are being treated is shared by others.

    My blood also boils when I read these stories of how those most in need are being treated…

    Of course their will always be the odd Daily Mail reader or Sky News watcher that will rinse and repeat the Coalition line.

    It seems the creation of a moral panic has evolved… It’s no longer just single mothers, its all benefit claimants, it’s not just the unemployed but all those too ill to be able to consider employment.

    At least such people are protected by law… well they would be if we hadn’t abolished legal aid..

    Of course you could always call NHS direct for advice … oh … sorry … not anymore

    Well there is always the European convention on Human Rights … but apparently that just benefits terrorists and not the man with no limbs in a wheel chair… silly me

    It’s strange to think that if not for his ingenious mind that the likes of Stephen hawking would be classified in the SUN as a workshy ‘Scrounger’

  • While I don’t doubt there are problems with ESA. It is worth stating a few facts. I can see no justification for the assertion in the Guardian article that “up to 70%” of appeals are overturned but if someone can point me to that I would be grateful.

    The facts from the Select Committee report at show there were 209,000 people who claimed ESA between October 2008 and April 2009 (i.e. under Labour) who were judged to be fit to work and of these a third, 69,500 appealed this decision. Of these 69,500 in 60% of cases the decision was upheld (that is they were considered to be fit for work by the Tribunal) and 40% reversed. The Select Committee also report that the percentage overturned is going down since April 2009.

    That is that around 13% of those judged to be fit initially had that overturned on appeal. I accept though that some who didn’t appeal might have had the decision overturned.

    It is worth clarifying the situation with contribution based ESA and this now being paid for a year. After contribution based ESA you can claim income based ESA. If though you have an income or your partner does then you may get no or reduced income based ESA. Only those that are judged partially fit and are put in the Work Related Activity Group will have the time limit. Those fully unfit in the support group won’t (they also get a slightly higher ESA and higher than incapacity benefit). IF and it is a big if, I concede, the assessment is done well then that makes sense.

    The fully fit get Contribution Based Job Seekers Allowance for six months at £67.50p a week, the partially fit get CB ESA for a year at £94.25p a week.

  • @Andrew

    Possibly, since I redrafted it, but I’m not sure it’s the final motion. It has also been already made out of date by the latest batch of horror stories in the press, particularly regarding the figures we’re using. Email me if you want a copy Andrew, but I can’t share the draft widely at this point.

    It’s important to remember also that Prof. Malcolm Harrington is conducting *at the moment* a review on how “human” the assessment procedure is. It would be wrong for us to pre-empt his professional judgement, but if we can achieve a clear statement of what our side of the Government wants the direction of reform to be, so much the better.

    Rob Brown,
    Liberal Youth Policy Committee

  • Barry George 28th Jul '11 - 12:06am

    Michael

    While I don’t doubt there are problems with ESA. It is worth stating a few facts….

    From 2008/2009 !

    Respectfully not relevant considering that people are upset at the new revised ATOS medicals that started in April 2011.

    It is the current/present ATOS tests that make my blood boil . Everyone accepted that the tests in 2008 were seriously flawed. To have 40% of appeals overturned is a massive number of people who were dragged further into poverty and the shame of being ordered to find work when they were clearly too ill to do so. This treatment continued month after month ,before their decisions where overturned.. And this very same treatment is being served to the disabled in 2011

    Simply sickening..

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but mine is that the sick and disabled are being exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment which is in violation of their human rights.. but hey , that’s just my opinion…

  • My opinion for what it’s worth is that is resting and retesting people and then changing the tests until you get the results you want is indefensible;
    It’s trial by News International columnists that works on the principle that the mentally unstable, people recovering from heart attacks, the bereaved, cancer patients, amputees, the educationally sub normal and just plain ill are all scroungers. It’s a truly disgusting spectacle of a vicious morally bankrupt social ideology driven by a near psychopathic inability of the political right to empathise and a weak liberal Left who are no longer willing to stand for anything at all.

  • However horrendous the actual facts here, and they are pretty horrendous, whichever way the facts are read, our party has a constitution which compels us to take policy decisions based on caring for the needy and vulnerable in society. Our ministers should not be supporting policies which encourage these situations, and should be vocal in condemning the excesses of Atos. There is absolutely no excuse for it. Aside from the excellent Matthew Oakeshott, in another policy area, we have (as far as I know) had no ministerial resignations at all. In the face of what we see here, I think this shows a lack of spine.

    Lib Dems as a party have never endorsed (again, AFAIK) attempts to downgrade welfare provision, and we should not do so now. The party in Government (or out of it, for that matter), had two logical and principled choices:
    1 Stick to, or revert to, its original, pre-election view of “the deficit” and how to deal with it, ie play it long. In case people think this is silly and the Govt line is thought universally applauded by expert economists, don’t believe it – many think Osborne’s economics are not sensibly based.

    2 Ensure that the main pain is felt by tax rises on the wealthier in society – a choice which one LD minister admitted to me was a political choice available, but which had not been taken.

    Cruelty and maladministration on this scale would hardly be tolerable in the Greek situation, let alone our British environment. As for the media, words fail me …. We have them on the back foot regarding their morality and lack of honesty, and yet we still do nothing to condemn their excesses in describing individual abuses to generalise to whole groups. Simon Titley’s analysis condemning the party’s increasing “local” focus, and lack of any declaration of our principles and our ideology is oh so relevant here!

  • As some people have pointed out already

    70% of cases that go to appeal are won, when they are represented by an organisation like CAB or Disability Rights,
    But as a whole. 40% of cases are won.

    Considering the lack of funds and cuts to Budgets. CAB and other charities are currently overwhelmed and not in a position to help everyone with their appeals, leaving many sick and vulnerable people to fend for themselves without having the law on their side.

    One thing that has been missed out on here though.

    When someone has had their benefit turned down by Atos and the DWP, they can either claim JSA OR if they appeal the ATOS decision, they can claim income support Paid at 20% LESS than JSA.
    Sick & Vulnerable people are already under pressure and tend to have a higher costs of living, They can not afford to lose their sickness benefits, let alone receive 20% LESS than someone on JSA.
    That is why so many people abandon their applications or appeals.
    Due to the high volume of people appealing their decisions, The tribunals are overwhelmed and it is taking sometimes over 12 months for people to have their cases heard.
    It is Abhorrent that these people are being treated this way and given less benefits than someone on JSA.

  • Here is a link to the information about 40% and 70% appeal rates – the figures are from the DWP

    http://www.cas.org.uk/news/2011-news/May/Charities+line+up+to+condemn+system+that+penalises+the+sick+and+vulnerable

    With reference to ESA being limited to 12 months, it is also important to know that this rule is applied retrospectively – This starts from the time you apply…. fill in forms, go to the assessment, receive a decision, make an appeal, wait for the result of the appeal…. If the appeal then decides you are entitled to it, you may only have a few weeks or months of receiving it before it is then cut off forever.

    The government’s own Impact assessment on the time-limiting of ESA concluded that they did not have to comply with their duty to assess the impact the policy would have on the people it would affect, in the areas of – Health and Well Being, Human Rights or the Justice System!! http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/esa-time-limit-wr2011-ia.pdf

    I don’t know how much more evidence people need to realise this Wefare Reform Bill is just morally wrong – but just in case they do here is a bit more –

    In March an open letter was published in The Guardian signed by over a hundred eminent experts. It called for the reform of DLA, but also included “other “anti-disability” provisions that will place extra pressure on social care and social services, to be removed from the welfare reform bill” – including the fact that “In particular, the bill will time-limit contribution-related employment support allowance to 365 days, so that a claimant becomes ineligible after a year if their spouse or partner works.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/mar/08/welfare-reform-bill-punish-disabled-poor

    Disability Alliance – comprised of around 270 charities have threatened legal action. A further 50 charities have signed an open letter calling for an end to the defamation sick and disabled people are facing daily from the government through their media influence. In a recent survey, Mind found that an enormous 95% of respondents don’t think that they will be believed at assessment. Crisis have warned of sick and disabled people facing homelessness. Oxfam have warned of sick and disabled people facing poverty. The Unions have warned of sick and disabled people facing hardship. Scope have warned of a worrying rise in disability hate crime.

    Act Now have said
    ” The WCA is causing high levels of anxiety before, during and after the assessment itself to those with autism and their carers…We don’t believe the Select Committee has gone far enough…The roll-out/continuation of these assessments should cease until Local Authorities and Health Authorities have had the time to appoint lead professionals and establish the groups that have been suggested within the Autism Strategy.”

    Disability Alliance have said
    “For ‘welfare to work’ to work the testing system that identifies disabled people’s support needs must be accurate and reliable. The WCA is neither and has been frequently criticised for failing to identify needs and ensure disabled people can access appropriate support. We welcome the committee statement that:

    ‘It is widely accepted that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) as introduced in 2008 was flawed. This has been borne out by the high number of appeals and the high success rate of appellants.’

    In March 2011 even the General Medical Council felt concerned enough to provide guidelines for the medical professionals they represent undertaking the assessments [6]. But the WCA was made tougher in April 2011 [7] and we are very concerned that the assessment remains severely flawed. This causes anxiety and poverty for disabled people and considerable costs for Government.”

    The TUC have said
    “”The new incapacity benefit assessment is a much tougher test than previously and is designed to save the government money by excluding more people. It is therefore unsurprising that more disabled people have been declared fit for work. These figures certainly don’t suggest that thousands of disabled people are suddenly ‘trying it on’. The TUC has heard from disabled people all around the UK who feel the tests have been unfair and ineffective, and it is interesting to see that 39% of appeals against initial judgments are successful.”

    The MS Society have said
    “The Society is calling for serious reforms to the assessment process, to make it fairer and more effective, as too many people with MS continue to be wrongly found ‘fit for work’. We’re pleased that the Committee has joined the chorus of voices highlighting what we have long recognised- that the WCA is not fit for purpose.”

    The Public and Commercial Services union which has thousands of members in the Department for Work and Pensions says the tests for claimants fail to address many serious health issues. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This exercise is just about saving money by bullying people who are sick or disabled onto lower levels of benefit. It is not about finding people work – because there are is no work available…The government has given £100 million to a private health care company to do these flawed assessments – instead of using the health service which is already there and trusted by the public. The government have set up a system that demonises disabled people and will encourage bullying and hate crimes.”

    Carerwatch have said
    “CarerWatch believe that if the current migration from Incapacity Benefit to ESA continues unopposed – in two years time only 40% of those who were awarded the old IB will still be entitled to ESA. Only the 40% allocated to the Support Group will still receive ESA. And it won’t be because the rest are in work. The rest will have been harassed on to JSA or have been time limited and means tested off benefits. And CarerWatch fear that this 40% will be the only ones to get PIP or CA in the future under Universal Credit.”

    Rethink have said
    “We agree with the principle that the benefits system needs simplifying, but the way in which it is being done is inhumane and is causing widespread fear and anxiety…Over 87% of people with a mental illness surveyed by Rethink said they found their Atos medical assessment stressful and 80% said the test has made their mental health worse. Many of our members and supporters have been in touch to tell us how stressful they are finding the process and some have even said it’s making them feel suicidal.”

    The list goes on…….

  • And here is a letter in The Guardian from yesterday 27th July, which not only criticises the WCA but raises very worrying points about the new test being developed for moving people of Disability Living Allowance onto PIP – basically, more of the same…

    “As a welfare rights adviser I have seen many severely ill people who had been deemed “fit for work”. For this reason I welcome the renewed criticism of Atos’s merciless electronic assessment. However, the MPs and media’s interest should not stop at Atos. The legislation governing the new sickness benefit, employment and support allowance is merciless and unfair. According to the law, blind people, deaf people, people who are so ill they cannot stand up, etc can lose their sickness benefit. The mental health assessment is similarly merciless.

    In the face of growing criticism from advice agencies and campaign groups, instead of reconsidering the ESA test and Atos’s role in it, the government is now, worryingly, going further with its new proposal to scrap the disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with a “personal independence payment” (Pip). A glance at the new test for Pip is sufficient to see how it will serve Atos’s needs rather than those of disabled people. The test for DLA was far too human to be amenable to a computerised assessment, while the proposed test for Pip looks like a slightly different version of the ESA test. The introduction of Pip will undoubtedly guarantee more revenues to the French company, but it will deliver more unfair benefit cuts to the disabled.”

    Giuseppina Salamone

    Brighton and Hove Unemployed Workers Centre

    And another letter raises an important point –

    “…The assessment is undertaken in accordance with the descriptors that assess the level of disability that a claimant may suffer. These descriptors are determined by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in line with its policy objectives. The criteria for qualification for benefit are determined through government policy and not by Atos – and while medical advice is provided to assist in the processing of assessments, health care professionals do not make any decisions on claims themselves. The qualification bar for claimants remaining on ESA beyond 12 months has been increased by DWP, with the firm intention of taking claimants off long-term benefits. Health care professionals are simply the pawns in this process.”

    Although I would add – the Health Care Proffesionals have a choice, they will all be aware of the problems and the immense distress that is beig caused – they do not have to work for such a disreputable company.

  • “We have failed to show the public that this is not a cost-cutting exercise”

    No, a cost-cutting exercise is EXACTLY what it is. People dying weeks after being classed as fit for work and others committing suicide due to how they were treated. Does this make the Lib Dems feel pleased with themselves? That’s money saved after all!

  • The only reason that the Government contracts out these “Medical Assessments” to a Private company “ATOS” who employ “health care professionals” not General Practitioners or other adequately Qualified or Specialized Medical Practitioners is because.

    A G.P working for the NHS has signed a code of ethics which states that the GP must “always” put the patients well being and interests first.
    This obviously does not sit well with the DWP because NHS practitioners would not unfairly “asses” patients/claimants.

    This is all about saving money and targeting the weakest people in society for it.

    Years ago the British Public would have been outraged at ANY Government behaving this way towards the sick and disabled, But just lately the Government aided by the Tabloids and Right Wing Tory Press have succeeded in their campaign to vilify and stigmatize those on sickness benefits. Murdoch and co are a lot more responsible for than just phone hacking and it’s a disgrace.

    There are laws that prohibits the promotion of hate or discrimination, IMO the press have come pretty darn close with their constant attacks and misleading headlines on claimants of sickness benefits and I wish this was something the press should also be investigated for

  • Thank you for finally covering this issue and actually believing us.

    A few months ago, LibDems on this site were calling people like me “Labour Trolls” for daring to bring up the topic of welfare. In fact, I’ve been accused of outright lies when I brought up fact that several disabled people have committed suicide as a direct result of these changes.

    It is now time for LibDems to decide: they can either support the Tories in this, as many LibDems in Parliament seem to do, or they can be on the side of humanity and demand radical changes to the welfare bill.

    I have a lot of faith, still, in LibDem grassroots members. I have 0% faith in the parliamentary party. This is why you will have to work on.

    Thank you, though, for starting to wake up and take this issue seriously after disability groups have spent over a year lobbying just to get this noticed.

  • I’m in danger of constantly repeating myself. The government and their newspapers supporters the mail and sun etc. are out to destroy the sick and disabled and that’s a fact

    As long as we understand that fact we may now try to move forward
    Likewise if you have one hate of a type of person it’s invariably you will also have another ? And who’s that i hear you say ?
    Well that my friends are the immigrants there still around oh yes but the right wing newspapers don’t like them and have informed the government to stop all immigration so now we have the government with not one hurdle to deal with and that’s to get rid of us but now they will have to try to get rid of the immigrants somehow to please the newspapers

    Well i can make it easy for David Cameron you cant either get rid of immigrants or stop them migrating here and you will never ever be able to achieve that so most important goal in your life ?

    Likewise with the sick and disabled sure you’ll kill off a few you may get lucky even and kill of many but the overall outcome is that both you and the newspapers will fail in your objective and there will be nothing you can do about it

    So my advice to the government and newspapers and all other right wing think tanks is to stop now from today the constant persecution of the sick and disabled and learn that your hatred of us with lies and falseness is not the way forward and as we have just seen in Norway how much more wickedness do we need to see or read about before it’s to late before another disaster takes place

  • stephen W wrote –
    Great Post! Continuing Labour’s failed ESA policy and planning to abolish DLA are probably the Coalition’s worst policies.

    The Coalition aren’t just continuing the ESA policy they have actively made the situation worse by changing the discriptors of the WCA as from March 28th this year, for instance whole sections such as ‘manual dexterity’ have been changed where the only way to pass it (or fail it depending on your point of view) is to have no hands at all
    http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/core.nsf/a/wr_esadescriptorslcwphysicalnew (by the way you need 15 points)
    There should really be no other reason to fight this other than on moral grounds, for those who need a political reason are seriously lacking something in the humanity dept, but hey every little bit helps I suppose.

  • that last paragraph should of really been posted on another thread, my mistake

  • @barry George
    2008/9 stats: The stats are from the select committee has being the most up to date they have. They say that the evidence is that it is being likely to be going down slightly.

    @ David G – Those that are terminally ill are put into the support group under “special rules”
    Those in the WRAG group cannot be required to work or look for a job. In some ways it could be better for people with a disability as they can be fearful of things such as volunteering, doing some part time work etc. for being seen then as not incapacitated.

    People with significant disabilities (and we all have some!) – blind, wheelchair users etc. can obviously with help and adaptations do jobs very well. I know it is a bit of a Conservative/Right Wing mantra but actually work or work related activity can improve people’s confidence, self-esteem and health. I appreciate as David G says in his blog post that it can have a negative impact as well.

    There is also an issue with people who have intermittent and variable conditions. It has to be said that this also happened with incapacity benefit.

    On IB ESA being time-limited – obviously this is a saving. But there seems to be a case for those with some ability to be treated in a similar way – in fact IB ESA is more generous than IB JSA.
    “but I think people will be shocked at the levels at which you lose eligibility. Anyone with a partner earning more than £5,200 will not be eligible…”

    My understanding from http://www.benefitsnow.co.uk/esa/rates.asp is that IB ESA for a couple both over 18 at which you don’t get any IB ESA is £6692.40p a year excluding housing costs (this may also be 2010 figures). That is if your housing costs were £600 a month then your partner would be earning £13,892.40p. It is also quite likely you would get council benefit. Now I don’t claim that £6692.40p is a large amount to live on. And I also appreciate that people with a disability have additional needs and requirements. The fact that ESA is higher than JSA recognises this and also there is DLA and (still) grants and help for adaptations.

    Now I would be much more generous on benefits – full stop but things get exaggerated on both sides of the debate – the blog referred to, “where’s the benefit?” points out the exaggerations by the tabloid media – there are also some exaggerations etc. here.

  • I feel I need to point out the urgency of this situation. Although this may only be coming to the attention of people now, campaigning about these issues has been going on since the CSR. The Welfare reform bill has already passed through the house of commons and the only hope of changing things is now with the house of lords – unless something unprecedented happens… and there is always that possibility…..

    The second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords is on the 13th September. Urgent action is required.

  • The fact remains that LibDems in Parliament have voted for this bill on its first two readings with no major objections from Liberal Democrats. Your MP Stephen Webb has written, on these very pages, why he supports the entire bill. He rejected claims about the unfairness of the WCA and rejected that the sick and disabled were being briefed against in the press.

    It feels as if the entire parliamentary LD party has forgotten us since the formation of the Coalition.

    The stories the tabloids have been printing about us would not be allowed if they were about ethnic minorities or homosexuals and rightly so. Why has it suddenly become acceptable to smear and abuse the sick and disabled in the past couple years? Why have LibDems in parliament mainly been so silent up until now?

  • I had an assessment a few years ago and didn’t get enough points; however I have been recently assessed again and placed in the Work Related Activity Group. I hope that the time on this benefit is not limited to one year. I thought it was that you had to have assessments after a certain period and I thought it was between one and two years after your last one.

    The Work Capability Assessments seem to have been designed so the majority of people fail them and have to go on JSA. When you turn up for your assessment you don’t know how biased these tests are and what conclusions are drawn from what you say.

    This could be addressed by people who are only awarded very few points still getting extra support into work even if they don’t get ESA but have to get JSA, but if you don’t get ESA you don’t get any real extra help to get into work. I will discover what help they give when you are getting ESA in the next few months.

    I think that everyone should have the right to have their Work Capability Assessments taped or videoed, they wouldn’t let me tape mine and they were not very keen on my taking notes of the questions asked and the answers I gave. On my first assessment I was surprised by what was recorded in my medical assessment report as having taking place. It is not uncommon for tests that didn’t take place being recorded as having taken place and the person having a within normal range result.

    I note that Matt says that if you appeal you get 20% less than the JSA rate. This was one of the reasons I didn’t appeal against my first assessment, however I thought you now get the JSA rate while waiting for your appeal.

    The issue of variable conditions needs to be fixed. You should be assessed on the number of days you need off from work because of being incapable of work in some way. Can someone really be assessed as capable of work if they have say 8 weeks or more off work in a year?

  • After being villified and insulted along with others when we tried to raise this from June 2010 I am now pleased that it is being discussed. However, if more Lib Dems had listened over a year ago instead of blindly supporting the Tories (and yes I know Labour started this) perhaps something could have been done. Why did you not listen?
    ATOS have a vested interest in withdrawing ESA from claimants as they have also been awarded the Back to Work programmes in many areas of the country. More on JSA, more money for them. They only put in bids for lucrative areas though.

  • Here is some informative viewing –

    Youtube videos – parts 1-3 – of a BBC Scotland Documentary about Atos – “Who’s cheating who?” 26th May 2010

    It features Danny Alexander saying – “The fact is that the process isn’t working and genuinely vulnerable people are being denied money as a result.” The Professor who designed the system saying it’s not working. A doctor saying it’s not working. A former successful political lobbyist who has been a victim of the system saying it’s not working…etc etc

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfJYzVUmvic&feature=player_embedded

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKeEyhF1FRI&feature=related

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnM4qs9-wfs&feature=related

    Danny Alexander also claimed at the time that the benefits system may be brought “close to meltdown” by tens of thousands appealing rulings they are no longer eligible for state support. Speaking before his promotion to the Cabinet, Mr Alexander questioned whether it was appropriate to press ahead with a planned expansion of ESA later this year. He said ““If the experience we’ve had over the last few months is anything to go by, there will be thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of incorrect decisions that are made. Tens of thousands of appeals will follow, and that will be a system, then, that is close to meltdown. It’s ministers who should be changing the way that the system works to ensure that it is fair.”

    That was over a year ago and the problems remain. When figures are quoted of thousands of people it is vital to remember that each one of those is a human being who is sick and disabled, who has had their life thrown into turmoil, doesn’t have enough to live on and despite being ill, is having to somehow find the strength to appeal against the wrong decision. Is it any wonder that a large number of people drop their appeals? They simply are too ill to cope. What happens to them? No-one knows because the government doesn’t keep a track of them.

  • It is clear from the volume of entries in this programme that ATOS is well known for its bad practice. I asked a junior minister at Regional Conference whether he and the government had confidence in ATOS, and he gave a blunt negative. But it seems little or nothing has been done. If we are into working for a ‘fairer society’ and putting that phrase all over everything we do or say, then ATOS must be dealt with pronto. As it is, we are providing amuniton to would-be Labour and UKIP supporters and deserve our poor rating in the opinion polls. Steve Webb, are you listening?

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