Figures released last year show that between December 2011 to February 2014, 4,010 people died after being told they were fit for work, following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). 40,680 died within a year of undergoing the WCA, making a bleak mockery of any claim that the WCA is a real and valid “health assessment” of any kind. Or that our welfare system is “supportive” to those in most need, in any real or meaningful sense. Those people were clearly not at all “fit for work.” The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics from the public.
Research last year from Leonard Cheshire, a charity that works with disabled people, also showed that the assessments are making people who are ill more sick. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said they found the assessment had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, or both. The same number described the face to face appointment as very stressful.
David Sugg would agree with those research findings. David suffered a life threatening subarachnoid haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) because of an aneurysm (a swollen and very weakened point in a blood vessel) in 2013, and faces more life saving surgery because he has developed two more aneurysms that threatens to rupture, putting him at risk of another catastrophic brain haemorrhage. Whilst he waits for his operation, he has been told that if his blood pressure goes up, he is likely to die.
He had a Work Capability Assessment with Maximus this week. He was so afraid of the adverse health impacts that the strain of the WCA may have on him that he left a letter for the local coroner, to be opened in the event of his sudden death.
The letter said: “You may be looking into the reason for my death. I am hoping I can save you some time. This uncaring and spiteful Tory government killed me.”
David underwent emergency brain surgery two years ago. He is currently awaiting a second round of surgery to seal a ruptured brain aneurysm.
He told me: “My neuro-surgeon says I mustn’t get stressed, but I have been called by the Department for Work and Pensions for an assessment even though I’ve told them about my situation.
If I don’t go for an assessment my benefits will be stopped. But I fear it may cost me my life.”
Although David survived his appointment, he has been suffering with a violent headache since, and hasn’t been able to eat for a week.
David told me: “That appointment might still kill me. If my blood pressure goes up I could be dead before I hit the floor. I asked the assessor why she was putting my life at risk, but she said it wasn’t her decision.”
David told me that the situation he is in has “Orwellian” parallels. It’s a terrible choice to have to make: he either risks his life and complies with the assessment or loses his lifeline support – his benefits that are the only income he has.
David explained to me that like many people needing to claim Employment Support Allowance – which is a very misleading name for a sickness benefit – he had worked all of his life before becoming ill. He worked in IT and security until a couple of years ago. He became unemployed at that time, and was struggling to find work.
He said: “I’d paid tax and national insurance all my life – since I was 15.”
“The battle to get Job Seekers Allowance was so stressful I actually think that led me to having the aneurysm in the first place. Then I had to battle to get support. The first work capability assessment I had was just six months after I’d had seven-hour brain surgery.”
David told me that his assessor recognised how inappropriate the appointment was, telling him “you shouldn’t actually be here.”
Despite the fact that David was awaiting life saving surgery, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demanded that he was assessed again. He returned the form, explaining that he was awaiting life saving surgery and must avoid stress, but to his horror, was forced to attend nonetheless.
He said “It’s brutal bullying by the DWP. No wonder people are committing suicide, pushed over the edge. You either die because of your condition or from suicide. All I would have to do is stop taking my pills for a couple of days and I would die.”
Debbie Abrahams, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that David’s case is far from unique.
She said: “This WCA process, revised by this Government, is not only not fit for purpose, there is growing evidence of the harm it is doing. These assessments need to be completely overhauled. Labour want to see a holistic, person-centred approach, not the dehumanising, harmful, inefficient process we have now.”
David wrote to his own MP, Stephen Metcalfe, outlining his extremely distressing circumstances, and was told that Stephen would contact the Department for Work and Pensions, but did not yet receive a response.
The system is designed to deter successful claims
I co-run a support group on Facebook for sick and disabled people claiming disability benefits. I know from the accounts and everyday experience of many others just how stressful the assessment process is. It’s a terrible state of affairs when people who are already struggling with severe health problems are made even more vulnerable because of callous cost-cutting government policies.
The assessment is not always an end to the stress, either. Quite often, people are forced to challenge wrong decisions, because the WCA is designed to find ways of passing people off as “fit for work” regardless of whether they actually are, cutting their benefit. It’s worth remembering that people needing sickness benefits have already been assessed as unfit for work by their own doctors.
If people need to appeal a wrong decision, they first have to go through a mandatory review – where the DWP “reconsider” the decision. Sickness benefit is stopped at this stage, leaving people who are often very ill without any lifeline income. Most can’t claim jobseekers allowance because they are too ill to work and so cannot meet the harsh and rigid conditionality requirements of that benefit. There is no set time limit for how long the DWP have to undertake the mandatory review. No-one may appeal until after their review is completed. The appeal process is also very stressful and intimidating, it usually entails another wait of months.
David is not the only person to contact me this week: George Vranjkovic is extremely anxious and distressed about his pending Work Capability Assessment, too. He is very afraid at the thought that he may lose his lifeline support.
He told me: “I took 5 days filling out the assessment form by hand and I sent it in 12 days before my deadline. But 5 days before the deadline I got a letter saying it had still not been received, so I rang them, and I got some bloke who chuckled. He said it probably got lost and was there anything else he could do.
I blew my top I’m afraid and said he could effing apologise for losing my form!!! He said he deserved to be treated with respect. I was so upset I shouted not if you sit there laughing at desperate people you don’t . Anyway, I ended up filling in the form on line, printing it off and sending one version by fax, and one version by special delivery, which is what I was instructed to do by them… £22.00 that cost me.”
The form showed up, according to another advisor that George spoke to the next day, but by then he had already paid out for the fax and special delivery and was told the likelihood of getting the £22.00 back was pretty remote. This is someone relying on just a lifeline benefit, calculated to meet only basic living costs – essentials: food, fuel and shelter.
Previously, George has been left without any money to live on by the DWP. He said: “For 6 months when they cut my money off completely, I was made to feel like a criminal. I was spoken to so badly on the phone. I wasn’t being sanctioned. They just weren’t paying me.
This is all just another example of the abject cruelty we, as honest people, are put through.”
Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”
It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit.
Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.