Strong stuff, well argued. The WCA procedure, ATOS assessments and the enormous payments for shoddy service (and incompetence,and ignorance, and inappropriate treatment verging on bullying, and plain failure) to certain preferred ‘back-to-work’ providers is a multi-layered scandal that needs wider covergae, but doesn’t get it, because the truth doesn’t fit with the ‘narrative’ peddled by Ministers.
From April 2011 those of us who have been receiving disability benefits on mental health grounds will start having our eligibility for benefits reassessed en masse using the discredited and ill conceived Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which is a computer based method of assessment. We do not accept that this move is taking place to provide us with a way out of poverty and social exclusion as the government claims but rather that its purpose is to reduce the welfare bill regardless of the distress, destitution, disengagement with mental health services and suicides that will result.
The government is specifically targeting people who are living with mental health problems as this group of claimants is less likely to return to work than other claimants. It is not suggesting that we do not have mental health issues; simply that it is still possible for us to work even though we are in mental distress. It is now the case that pain, distress, indignity and an abysmal quality of life caused to us by work cannot exempt us from it; we can only be excused from work if, mechanically, we cannot perform a job and not because work would have negative consequences for us. This is called ‘focusing on what we can do rather than on what we can’t do’; the misery being what we can’t do. Although these changes to the way mentally distressed people are assessed for benefits were introduced by the last Labour government we are aware that Ed Milliband is now undertaking a review of Labour policies and we urge him to abandon support for the WCA in favour of a more accurate, honest, discerning and compassionate way of assessing a mentally distressed person’s fitness for work.We welcome the fact that organisations ranging from the CAB to numerous mental health charities, through to the Royal College of Psychiatry, have criticised the WCA as being deeply flawed in its ability to assess whether someone with mental health problems is fit for work. There can be no doubt that this assessment is not fit for purpose, the specific problems with the WCA for mentally distressed people are so numerous that it would be an onerous task to itemise them here and we believe that submitting vulnerable people to such an badly designed test constitutes abuse. It is clear that the government is reckless as to the impact that this process will have on claimants. We also believe that the fact that the government is pressing ahead with WCAs in the face of such widespread criticism is evidence that it has no interest in the accuracy or fairness of the assessments but in simply going through the motions of what is, in effect, a mock assessment so that it can withdraw benefits from us without further ado.
Whatever the outcome of these assessments for us as individuals, we will refuse to accept that we have been properly assessed for our fitness for work. We have no regard for, or recognition of, WCAs as bearing any relationship to our fitness for work and we declare that we are being forced to take part in them without our consent. We further declare that the WCA has failure to qualify for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) built into it and that this is what is intended by the government.
In addition, we do not accept that the Independent Review carried out by Professor Harrington was indeed independent or that it was even a review in any true sense. Throughout, Professor Harrington, who is being paid by the government, offers his own view that work is always beneficial and we are left to surmise that any harm done to someone with a mental health problem who is forced to work will be outweighed by these benefits. Although some research suggests that people in employment have better general health and report a better sense of well being than unemployed people, other studies suggest that this is contingent on the type of work, levels of pay and general working conditions of the person in employment. Even Dame Carol Black, who is a robust advocate for the benefits of work, acknowledged the harm certain types of work can do and we believe that people with mental health problems will be most vulnerable to the negative effects of work. For example, it is now known that bullying and stress at work can create mental health problems.
The low social status and demonization as benefit scroungers we endure must surely impact on our sense of well being and these are negative outcomes of our unemployment that could easily be addressed, yet the government allows them to continue and, we believe, colludes with them to ensure there will be little sympathy from the wider public for mental health claimants during the process of removing us from benefits. We therefore, in addition, call on the government to take action to bring an end to the vilification of benefit claimants.
Amazingly, the much criticised descriptors within the WCA which are the touchstones from which we accrue the points we need to be excused from work on mental health grounds will not be reviewed until the next annual review after many claimants have already been subjected to the WCA even though Professor Harrington acknowledges that the descriptors are inadequate. Further, he makes no reference to the fact that, following its own internal review, the government will be reducing the number of descriptors that are relevant to mental health claimants from ten to just seven thus reducing the opportunities for people claiming on mental health grounds to accumulate the points we need to qualify for ESA.
It is difficult to comment on Professor Harrington’s repeated assertions about the benefit of work for a mentally distressed person as he does not refer to any specific studies but rather presents this view as conventional wisdom. What research into the outcome for people with mental health problems who are forced to work did Professor Harrington have in mind when he made these assertions? We wonder if any research into the effects of work on this specific group of people has ever been carried out since it has been the case that someone who is, say, suicidal or psychotic, has, until now, been excused from formal work. Furthermore, the DWP are not presently doing follow up investigations into how people who have been denied benefits are faring in the work market. This is an experiment that puts hundreds of thousands of people at risk of serious deterioration in their mental health and will lead to suicides. Unsurprisingly, Professor Harrington comes out in favour of WCAs in principle, recommending changes that are largely cosmetic and designed to reduce complaints and appeals.
We regret Professor Harrington’s unfortunate use of a quote from Voltaire’s Candide: “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need”. It is clear that many people in work in Britain today are saved from none of these and we resent the suggestion that vice may be particularly prevalent amongst the unemployed. We do not need Professor Harrington to tell us what is good for us and we do not believe that that was his remit. We do not believe he is suitably objective to undertake this work in the future.
The government has highlighted what it believes to be an inordinately high number of people claiming benefits on mental health grounds, in particular young people, and we call for a full investigation into why so many people in the UK are suffering from mental health problems. We believe that this may be due to the material inequalities in our society and the psychological distress that results from the type of culture that these levels of inequality bring about. There is surely at least as much evidence for the psychologically harmful effects of inequality as there is for the benefits of work for people with mental health problems. The withdrawal of benefits from people with mental health issues is not known to cure these issues.
Where is the parity when a person with mental health problems is required to accept levels of stress and distress at work over and above what would normally be expected by someone who does not have mental health problems? Let us not forget that Atos Healthcare are not being asked to find people who have a history of mental health problems fit for work: it is being asked to find people who are actively depressed, anxious, suicidal, compulsive, psychotic, and so on, as fit for work or to actively prepare for work. What redress will the mentally distressed person or their family have if this results in tragedy?
For decades working people in the UK have had in place a system of insurance that would provide for them should they become too ill to work. We have all been paying into this system, including current benefit claimants and their loved ones, but people in work must now understand that they are no longer insured in any meaningful way and that if they or a family member develops mental health problems they may well find it impossible to claim on this insurance. What is changing is the idea that a person can be excused from work if they are ill; this is now no longer the case and the introduction of this significant change was deliberately concealed with the distraction of endless ‘benefit scrounger/cheat’ stories. So a fundamental change in how we view welfare has taken place by subterfuge. By removing this safety net the government is creating an insecure and vulnerable workforce that will be more malleable and willing to accept poorer working conditions which will surely be regarded as a bonus by the present government.
This April, people who have serious mental health problems and who haven’t worked for many years, even decades, are now faced with having to look for work, regardless of their prospect of finding any. If the benefit system was wrong in allowing us to remain unemployed for years, such that we are now without CVs or skills in modern working practices, when it turns out we could have been working all along, how did the DWP get it wrong for so long? And what help will we receive now that the rules and goalposts have been abruptly moved and we face abject poverty when we have taken on financial commitments on the basis that we believed we had some measure of financial security within a Welfare State that provided for the sick and disabled? In 2008 Dame Carol Black observed that, with 500,000 jobs vacancies, it should be easy for people with mental health problems to find work. She makes no reference to all the other people looking for jobs or the stigma attached to mental distress which impedes us in getting work, a stigma that the media has been feeding into for years. Now the same media is saying that there is nothing wrong with us and there never has been. Since the bankers thrust us all into financial chaos two years ago the unemployment figures are set to rise even further and it is probable that most people with mental health problems will have to live for years on JSA, a benefit which is too low to live on even for a short period, and with constant harassment to prove we are looking for work we know we will never find.
The high number of successful appeals against WCA decisions is surely evidence that Atos Healthcare is repeatedly failing to accurately assess claimants and we wonder at what cost to the nation’s finances? The main reason that Atos’s decisions have been overturned has been that appeal judges are finding that the assessors have failed to take into account all of the relevant evidence on the impact of the claimant’s condition on their ability to work. Much of this relevant evidence comes from the mental health care professionals who have provided our care over a period of time and we believe that this is the correct source of information on how a person’s mental health condition affects them, especially in view of the fact that most mental health problems fluctuate over time and a long view is required. If appeals find that evidence from our mental health care professionals is better able to establish whether we are fit for work, what is the added value of the WCA, why do we need these interviews? They seem unnecessary over and above the evidence provided by our professional carers and we want the DWP to explain why they are needed in addition to, or in preference to, the evidence provided by our psychiatrists and doctors.
We are concerned that so much rests on how an individual presents themselves at the WCA interview and we believe that the enormous pressure on someone to ‘perform on the day’ is an ordeal that paralyses them, leaving them devastated. We declare this process to be deplorable and profoundly unacceptable in what purports to be a caring and civilised society.
The government has been careful not to disabuse the public of the assumption that this move is about reducing the number of ‘benefit cheats’ and have been happy to allow a misapprehension about this number, which is in fact very small. If someone is feigning mental health problems to claim benefits, how can a one off, forty minute interview deter them if they are prepared to give false information to an assessor who is not even a psychiatrist? How do these assessments identify ‘benefit cheats’? They don’t, but that is not their purpose. We demand that the government makes it clear that people who have been claiming benefits on grounds of mental health problems but have now been found ‘fit for work’ following an Atos WCA were not ‘cheats’ but were claiming legitimately; it is that the criteria for qualification for benefits have changed and being ill no longer makes a person eligible for benefits.
We demand that we are assessed for our fitness to work based on evidence provided by the health care professionals who know us and know how our condition affects us over a period of time. The report on our condition by them should be objective and factual and should exclude their own personal views on the moral benefits of work or their political opinions on whether an individual has a responsibility to society. We all have a well documented mental health history which needs to be taken into account in any assessment of our future capacity for work, for example, how our mental health responds to stress seems relevant. Taking on a job is a long term commitment; any assessment that takes a snapshot view is meaningless. In addition, negative effects of medication, such as drowsiness, apathy, reduced intellectual functions such as memory and concentration affect our capacity to work.
We further demand that, if we are found unfit for work but that we may be fit at a later date, we should be left alone to become fully fit without having the stress of being constantly bullied into showing willing and taking part in work related activity. Stress invariably exacerbates mental health problems.
We welcome any initiative that would allow people claiming benefits on mental health grounds to be supported back into meaningful work but this must always be optional with no threat of sanctions and no need to explain ourselves if we choose not to take up these opportunities. We do not believe that it is possible for many people with mental health problems to work effectively or without distress on an ongoing basis and that the decision to move into work should be taken by them in collaboration with their mental health care provider and should never be compulsory. There should be easy return to benefits if working becomes problematic for the person living with mental health difficulties.
It is unrealistic to expect someone who has been out of work for a long period and who is stigmatised through having a mental health problem to find work within the same timescale as someone who has recently been in work and has no history of mental health issues. Reductions in other benefits, such as Housing Benefit, after a year of unemployment would therefore be unfair and inappropriate. We are horrified that the contributory component of ESA will be withdrawn after 12 months leaving mentally distressed people who live with a partner infantilised by having to be totally dependent on their partner.
We see the use of Atos Origin, a huge international company, as no more than a profit making opportunity for its shareholders and we deplore the use of such a company by the government on behalf of British taxpayers. We are mortified that the CEO of Atos Healthcare is reported to have earned £626,000 last year for overseeing the WCA travesty and the misery it is causing. Profits made from assessing people for work should be returned to the taxpayers’ coffers. We are repulsed that Atos Origin shareholders are making huge profits from our mental distress and we call for a full investigation into the cost effectiveness of this profit making exercise.
We demand the dismissal of Atos and an immediate end to WCAs with a return to the use of evidence from our health care professionals as a measure of our fitness for work. We will actively fight for these demands.
Finally, we believe that the present Tory government, with the necessary help of the Liberal Democrats, is using the excuse of the international financial crisis to take the opportunity to dismantle the Welfare State, including the NHS, in the interests of the wealthy business community and to the detriment of ordinary people. This is in keeping with their long standing, if publically denied, agenda to return the UK to pre Welfare State conditions which ordinary people fought so hard to put an end to. We stand side by side with all organisations and individuals who are resisting this destruction of our social infrastructure and call on these organisations and individuals to support our demand for an immediate end to WCAs.
The loss of benefits to people with mental health problems will result in distress, destitution, disengagement with mental health services, deterioration in people’s mental health and suicides
Submitting vulnerable people to such a badly designed test constitutes abuse.
WCAs are mock assessments.
Removing benefits for people in mental distress on such a huge scale is a potentially dangerous experiment.
Professor Harrington’s recommendations are cosmetic and designed to reduce complaints and appeals.
The present and last governments have encouraged the media to vilify benefit claimants in order to distract attention from the fundamental change being made to how welfare is provided where the consensus that sickness can excuse someone from work is being overturned without the general public being aware that this has happened.
This programme of Welfare Reform is not real reform that is entirely separate from Cuts, but it is cuts under the guise of Welfare Reform.
We will not accept that we have been properly assessed for our fitness for work as a result of a WCA and we have no regard for, or recognition of, these assessments as bearing any relationship to our fitness for work.
We are being forced to take part in WCAs without our consent.
Failure to qualify for ESA is built into WCAs and this is what is intended by the government.
The Independent Review carried out by Professor Harrington was neither independent nor a review.
We stand side by side with all organisations and individuals who are resisting this destruction of our social infrastructure
We call on the government to take action to bring an end to the vilification of benefit claimants.
We call for a full investigation into why so many people in the UK are suffering from mental health problems.
If the government go ahead with WCAs we want redress if any loss of benefits results in tragedy.
We demand that the government makes it clear that people who have been claiming benefits on grounds of mental health problems but have been found ‘fit for work’ by Atos were not ‘cheating’ when they were in receipt of benefits, as suggested by publications like The Daily Mail; they are no longer eligible for benefits because the criteria for benefits have now changed.
We demand that we are assessed for our fitness to work based on evidence provided by the health care professionals who know us and know how our condition affects us over a period of time and how our medication affects us.
We demand that our mechanical functionality (‘what we can do’) should not be the only measure of our fitness to work; the full impact of work, including the negative ones (‘what we can’t do’) should also be taken into account. We are human beings; not machines.
We demand no cuts to eligibility for benefits; a serious mental health issue is not and has never been a lifestyle choice.
We call for a full investigation into the cost effectiveness and efficacy of Atos Healthcare.
There should be no reductions in other benefits, such as Housing Benefit, after a year of unemployment.
There should be no withdrawal of the contributory element of ESA after 12 months.
We demand that, if we are found unfit for work but that we may be fit at a later date, we should be left alone to become fully fit without being constantly bullied into showing willing and taking part in work related activity unless we choose to do so.
Any decision by a person with mental health problems to move into work should be taken by them in collaboration with their mental health care provider and should never be compulsory.
We want an explanation of what the added value of the WCA is over and above evidence from health care providers.
If benefits are to be cut back, frozen, or otherwise not to rise in line with the cost of living, they should not be cut more than public sector workers’ pay.
When and if we are ready to work, we demand:
• Real Work – expertly and intensively supported at first.
• Real Training (not just shelf stacking procedures or health and safety around supermarket trolley collection)
• Real affordable continuing and further Education from functional skills (literacy, numeracy and IT) to post-graduate research.
• Claimants to be permitted to increase hours and responsibility incrementally.
• Test trading, currently permitted for those who want to be self employed or start their own business, should be publicised widely and should allow a claimant to take a ‘wage’ in the form of ‘Disregard’, which is £20 a week, or pay under Permitted Work. The scheme should be less bureaucratic and should not be restricted to 26 weeks.
• Claimants should be permitted to become company directors without penalty with the provision of grants and expertise for social firms, co-ops, limited companies and mutualism.
• Reform the DWP and educate Benefits Agencies so that test working without penalizing claimants is allowed.
• The ‘Disregard’ should be raised from £20 a week to £50 a week.
• People on Incapacity or ESA can earn up to £95 a week as Permitted Work for up to one year (if your doctor supports this) after which you have to stop work for a period or lose benefits. This should be increased to five years.
• We demand that housing costs paid for by income support should be exempt from being affected by Permitted Work.
• Income support reduced by Permitted Work should not affect entitlement to free prescriptions.
• There should be easy return to benefits if working becomes problematic for someone living with mental health problems.
We demand an immediate end to WCAs and a return to the use of evidence from the health care professionals who provide our care to determine our fitness for work.
We call on all organisations and individuals currently involved in resisting the present government’s dismantling of the Welfare State and NHS to support our demand for an immediate end to WCAs.
Survivor Resistance Network