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Work Capability Assessments ‘Leaving Sick And Disabled On A Knife-Edge’

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Leading mental health charity, Mind, has today released a damning report that shows the coalition’s work programme is failing to meet the needs of people with disabilities and is pushing them further away from work, rather than closer.

The report, Fulfilling Potential? – ESA and the fate of the Work-Related Group (pdf), authored by Catherine Hale, a Work Programme service user and endorsed by 18 other organisations, which include National Autistic Society, Disability Rights UK, RNIB, and Stroke Association, found that the provision of back to work support through the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is causing severe anxiety for people with disabilities and pushing them further from the job market.

Catherine – who currently claims ESA due to Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME), a long-term debilitating health condition – along with support from Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform, produced the report which researched over 500 respondents with a range of mental health and physical problems.

Respondents had been assigned to the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) following a claim for the disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). People placed in WRAG can have their benefit suspended or ‘sanctioned’ if they do not engage with work-related activity.

The report examined not only the respondents initial feelings and expectations about work and the WRAG but also looked at their:

  • Encounter with employment advisors
  • The activities and interventions they were offered and which of those they were compelled to undertake
  • The procedures and impact of compulsion
  • Reflections (at time of research) in relation to work and wider psycho-social factors following engagement with the Work Programme or JCP

The data received from these respondents was shocking. It was found that only 5% of respondents had received help from the JCP or Work Programme. Whilst 6 in 10 people said that their “health, finances, confidence and sense of purpose had all suffered as a result”.

The research found that most of the respondents to the survey had been “compelled to undertake compulsory back-to-work activities or faced having their benefits cut. The majority of respondents said their disabilities were neither acknowledged nor accommodated, consequently making engagement in such activities difficult. Furthermore, eighty per cent said not being able to access activities made them feel anxious whilst 70 per cent were worried about their benefits being cut.

The purpose of actual or threatened cutting of benefits is to motivate people to get back to work. However, the report suggests the problem is not one of motivation.   Sixty per cent were “strongly committed to work”, 30 per cent were “not sure they could work” whilst 10 per cent either “did not want to or did not think they would be able to work.   In addition, for most respondents (90 per cent) the main barrier to work was their health or impairment.

The report also found:

  • Most people received generic back-to-work support such as CV writing classes with very few receiving specialist support. Over half the respondents felt their ‘action plan’ of activities was inappropriate for them, and six in 10 people felt no adaptations were made to activities to take account of their barriers.
  • Almost all respondents were threatened with sanctions if they failed to participate in mandatory activities. On average, respondents had at least three different kinds of difficulty in participating in activities due to their health condition or impairment. 50 per cent said these difficulties were not acknowledged and 70 per cent said no adjustments were made to accommodate their disability.
  • 87 per cent of respondents who failed to participate in a mandatory activity were prevented by factors relating to their health or impairment. Only 6.5 per cent had actually received a cut in benefits.
  • The majority of respondents said they wanted to work given the right support and a job suitable to their disability, and that they believed employers could make use of their talents if jobs were more inclusive. 82 per cent of respondents said their Work Programme provider or JCP made no effort to adapt jobs on offer to make it easier for them to work.
  • Most people agreed the most helpful would be a package of support agreed upfront so that they could reassure potential employers of their ability to do a job. Adjustments that employers could make included flexible hours, working from home, working fewer than 16 hours per week, increased confidence on the part of employers and recruitment through work trials rather than interviews.

Catherine Hale, author of the report, said:

“The majority of disabled people want to work. However, people who have been awarded ESA have genuine and often severe health problems, which make it difficult to access employment.

“The current system ignores these difficulties, and relies on the threat of sanctions to get people into work. It is no surprise that it is not only failing disabled people but causing additional distress and anxiety, on top of the barriers that they already face.

“At my first back to work meeting, the Jobcentre adviser accused me of fraud and threatened to stop my benefits if I didn’t try harder to get well. They assume that people are not working because of defective attitudes and morals, not because they’re ill or disabled. This is wrong and deeply damaging.

“People claiming ESA need to be placed with specialist organisations experienced in supporting disabled people into employment, not into mainstream welfare-to-work schemes. Employers should widen job opportunities and consider making adjustments to accommodate people with disabilities including flexible or shorter working hours and the option of working from home.”

Tom Pollard, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Mind, commented:

“This report adds to the existing evidence that the current benefits system is failing people with disabilities and mental health problems. There is far too much focus on pressuring people into undertaking compulsory activities, and not nearly enough ongoing, tailored support to help them into an appropriate job.

“Just five per cent of people are actually managing to get into work through this process, while many people are finding that the stress they are put under is making their health worse and a return to work less likely. We urgently need to see an overhaul of this system.”

The findings of the report come on the same day it is announced by the Government that more than 700,000 people are waiting for assessments for ESA. Mike Penning, Minister for Disabled People, blamed the delays on Atos, the contractor carrying out controversial fitness-to-work tests, with an official from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) telling MPs that Atos, which has agreed to end its contract early, “couldn’t deliver the quality at the capacity we want”.

Prime Minister David Cameron when asked about implementation of benefits reform, said changes should be carried out “in a way that works well” rather than to an “artificial deadline”. His response was to a question posed by Labour MP Katy Clark, who had asked the PM why the majority of those who had applied for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) had yet to receive a decision.

A DWP spokesperson, however, said the backlog was beginning to fall as Atos was “now processing more cases than come in.” According to the DWP:

  • The total backlog stands at 712,000 people. Of these, 394,000 are new claimants for ESA and 234,000 are existing ESA recipients whose reassessments as to whether they are still entitled to the benefit have been delayed.
  • A further 84,000 are people still on incapacity benefit who have not yet been moved over to ESA.

Mr Penning said the government had failed to meet its own deadline of moving these people onto the new benefit by April. They are still awaiting assessment.

In addition the DWP said:

“Incapacity Benefit reassessment has resulted in over 700,000 people looking for, or making steps to return to work – it is crucial that we continue this important process to ensure that people are not written off and we get a fair deal for the taxpayer.”

More than three million people who are claiming ESA (inclusive of those who previously claimed incapacity benefit), are being assessed to see how their illness or disability affects their ability to work.

This process began under the last Labour government and has been accelerated by the coalition government.

According to Mr Penning, a decision in March to end Atos’ contract early was based on the fact he had lost faith in the firm. He has also said that a new contractor – expected to be appointed in early 2015 – would not be chosen on cost alone but on its ability to carry out the assessments in a timely and proper fashion, but would cost the department more money.

Citizen’s Advice chief executive, Gillian Guy, said:

“The failings of the Work Capability Assessments are leaving sick and disabled people on a knife-edge.

“Employment Support Allowance is now the biggest single issue that Citizens Advice clients need help with and more than 1.5 million people have come to us about problems with ESA since it was introduced.”


“Medical evidence should be made available free to claimants to support their application for support and the unacceptable backlog of applications must be dealt with.

“Unless ministers make changes to how assessments are carried out then sick and disabled people face another three years of delays, anxiety and unfair treatment.”


Last modified 18:12pm 12/06/2014 to correct speech mark errors.

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