The government are sneaking through major changes to how disabled people are assessed, writes Sue Marsh.
On January 28th, 2013 the UK government is due to make a set of changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the flawed ‘fitness to work’ test which assesses whether sick and disabled people can get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA): a benefit designed to help and support very unwell or profoundly disabled people into work.
Although these changes have been advertised as small ‘amendments’, they will in fact have a huge impact on the way people’s illnesses and disabilities are assessed. Many vulnerable people’s needs will suddenly be able to be overlooked or ignored, meaning they could end up losing the support they desperately need to manage their conditions.
Hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people across Britain need your help to fight these changes!
PROBLEM 1: FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
In the fitness to work test, your needs are assessed by a ‘healthcare professional’ employed by the French private company ATOS. This assessor doesn’t just need to look at your current difficulties. For example, they can also imagine how using an aid (e.g. a wheelchair) might improve your ability to work and make a judgement based on that – without even asking your opinion!
However, soon this “imaginary test” will be able to be used for many more aids (including guide dogs and false limbs!). This means that soon thousands more people could be judged as fit to work, without being consulted, on the basis of an “imaginary” aid they don’t own or may not be able to use!
It gets worse.
Even if returning to work may clearly put you at risk, these changes will mean you can still lose your disability benefit – as long as the assessor believes that trying a new therapy or treatment might reduce that risk. There’s no need for evidence the treatment will help: you will lose support either way, making it much harder to manage if the treatment doesn’t work as hoped – let alone if it ends up making things worse.
Imagine Bert, who suffers from severe schizophrenia, but is found fit to work and made to take behavioural therapy in the hope of improving his condition.
He will lose his disability benefit, without the assessor having to look at several vital questions:
How hard it would be for Bert to contact a psychiatrist? How long would an NHS appointment take to organize? Are there private options in his area – and could he afford them if so? What if the therapy doesn’t work, or takes a long time to adjust to?
Chris Fry, solicitor and managing partner at Unity Law, says:
“How individuals are assessed to receive ESA could give rise to large numbers of legal claims being made against them. These changes immediately puts the government at risk of breaching article 9 of the European Convention for the protection of Human Rights, which preserves an individual’s right to ‘thought, conscience and religion’.
“The new rules provide for an individual to be refused ESA if they do not take any medication or accept an aid which Doctors believe could aid their condition. Essentially, they can impose a financial penalty on individuals who refuse treatment on religious. Given the very recent decision involving the Christian, Nadia Eweida, and the court upholding her right to wear a cross – the government is on very rocky ground with these changes.”
If the government’s rule changes go through, people like Bert who are desperate to work will find it nearly impossible to get an accurate assessment, affecting the quality of their support and actively preventing their efforts to get back into work.
PROBLEM 2: SEPARATING PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
The government is also trying to change the way people’s conditions are assessed by dividing health problems into two separate boxes: ‘physical’ and ‘mental’. When looking at what tasks people can do, only the ‘physical half’ of the test will apply to those with physical disabilities. The same goes for the effects of treatment: for eg, if you’re taking mental health medication, only mental health side-effects will be looked at.
This completely fails to understand the way many disabilities and illnesses can lead to both physical and mental effects. This is also the case for many common treatments – such as those for schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Think of Emily, who suffers severe, chronic pain because of nerve damage to her leg.
Emily is among the 49% of chronic pain sufferers who also suffer depression as a result of continuous pain. An assessor may see Emily as able to do some work as long as she takes strong painkillers for the rest of her life, meaning she could pass the ‘fitness’ test. Yet the painkillers may not deal with the depression caused by her condition. Painkillers have also often been shown to affect people’s wakefulness and decision-making.
So taking the medication may affect Emily’s ability to do a job in a completely new way – yet because these new problems are cognitive, they would not need to be looked at by the assessor when making their decision!
Pretending the effects of illnesses and disabilities can be separated in this way goes against all medical practice. Going even further, and using this method to ignore sick and disabled people’s needs, is at best hopeless policy, and at worst deliberate cruelty. We cannot let the government treat some of the most vulnerable people in British society in this way.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The main way you can help is by spreading the message about these changes to ESA. The government have tried to sneak them under the radar – the last thing they will want is people talking about them!
Here are some great ways you can raise awareness:
1). Email your MP (you can search by name or constituency at: www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps);
2). Share this blog post on Twitter (using the hashtag #esaSOS), Facebook and other social media;
3). Email your friends and family a link to this post – or simply talk to them about it!
Again, the main way we can get the government to reconsider is by getting people to talk about the injustice of these changes. So please spread the word as far and wide as you can!
Thank you so much for reading this far. Now let’s make sure these unwanted, damaging benefit changes never see the light of day!
• If you want to do more, please sign the WOW petition and call on the government to think again; sign here: wowpetition.com – and ask all of your friends to sign too!
• The full Spartacus briefing on the proposed changes to ESA can be found here: www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing.