A report written by people who have serious illnesses or disabilities, The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment, contains 70 first-hand accounts of taking the fit-for-work test, which in large part determines eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).
ESA replaced incapacity benefit four years ago. These testimonials about the eligibility test clearly show how ministers have misled the public and used the press to demonise this most vulnerable of groups.
For the first time, the report exposes the extent of the opposition to the ESA and proves, beyond any doubt, that not only is it “unfit for purpose” but that it is also one of the most shocking betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.
Since the test’s introduction in October 2008, more than 400,000 people with serious illnesses and profound disabilities have appealed against the decision to strip them of state support, and 40% have been successful; a great many disabled and sick people have died after being found “fit to work” and a survey has found that 6% of GPs have come across a patient who has attempted to take or taken their own life as a result of undergoing, or “fear of undergoing” the test.
It should have been so different. When the then Labour government introduced the ESA as a new benefit for those unable to work due to long-term illness or disability, the eligibility test was intended to look at what the disabled person could do, not what they couldn’t.
The assessment would have three possible outcomes: the person was too ill or disabled to undertake any kind of paid work so they would go into the long-term support group (SG) and would not be expected to look for work; the person had a significant illness or disability but might be able to work, or would like to work with the right support. They would go into the work-related activity group (WRAG) and have access to training or adaptions and experts to help them find a job; or the person would be found immediately able to work and would move to jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
Charities and campaigners representing sick and disabled people supported this concept and indeed, the principle is still one we accept and would like to see today.
But the politicians have made the test far too limited. It has ignored whole classifications of illness or disability; people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, autism or Asperger’s and conditions that fluctuate. Cancer patients have found themselves at the job centre between chemo treatments, paraplegics have been told that they are fully mobile.
Politicians and the media also stopped talking in warm, empowering terms and suddenly, an obsession with “scroungers”, “skivers” and “cheats” that had no basis in fact took over. Despite having one of the lowest rates of support for sick and disabled people in the developed world, despite the toughest criteria in the developed world and despite a broadly average number of people claiming support, ministers and the media painted a picture of a country held back by an army of lazy shirkers who could work if they wanted to but chose not to.
In fact, UK sickness and disability benefits have the lowest fraud rates of any benefit at less than half of 1%; a full one-third of sick or disabled people live in poverty and 60% of disabled people already work.
Luckily, the new benefit was tested first in two pilot studies and it became immediately apparent that the test could not accurately access claimants. At this point, the ESA should have been stopped and redesigned. Politicians should have seen that the language they were using was doing great damage to a vulnerable group and returned to the original concept of the ESA.
But far from pausing the ESA, the coalition government not only rolled it out nationwide, it limited the WRAG to just one year. Any last sense that the WRAG was a secure place for nurturing the untapped potential of those with significant barriers to the workplace was gone.
The coalition did at least ask professor Malcolm Harrington to lead anindependent review into ESA and recommend improvements. A year later, Harrington suggested many sensible changes that were acceptedbut as yet, little progress has been made in rolling them out.
How many more seriously ill people must suffer mentally, physically and financially before the ESA is withdrawn and redesigned? Four years is long enough – indeed far too long. This report proves it beyond any doubt.