Tag Archives: tick-box

The great debate – the incapable assessment regime

The most telling moment in today’s (September 4) Westminster Hall debate on Atos and Work Capability Assessments came when Chris Grayling was delivering his speech. A woman shouted, “You’re killing us!” and was immediately told to shut up or the public gallery would be cleared.

It was an act of insensitivity that put into a nutshell the Coalition government’s attitude to public discontent over its Work Capability Assessment regime for claimants of the new Employment and Support Allowance (and soon, the new Personal Independence Payment); it doesn’t care what we say, it will carry on doing what it wants, and it will lie to us about what that is.

I was listening to the debate and watching responses on Twitter. John McDonnell MP tweeted: “Protesters sum up exactly what this debate is all about. The Atos system is causing immense suffering & killing people.”

Mr Grayling did not address these concerns in his speech.

He said the DWP would not be changing the controversial ‘descriptors’, that are used in WCAs by the tick-box assessors, who need them to understand whether any person’s abilities mean they deserve a much-coveted place among the 13 per cent of claimants in the ‘Support Group’ – or whether they should be turfed out into the ‘Work-Related Activities Group’ or market “Fit For Work”.

But a potential new set of descriptors, more appropriate to the conditions suffered by the sick and disabled, is still being considered. Where’s the truth?

He said the assessment regime had “no financial targets”. This was a flat-out lie. We know there are targets because Atos trainers made that perfectly clear in the recent Dispatches and Panorama documentaries on the subject.

“Atos do not take decisions.” Another lie. The DWP decision-makers rubber-stamp Atos recommendations in the vast majority of cases.

He repeatedly told us the process was “not an exact science” before contradicting himself by stating that the government wants to “get it right”.

Before he got up to speak, the criticisms had been mounting up like a tidal wave against him. All to no avail, as he sailed on, oblivious.

“How many people have died between being rejected and their appeal, and how many committed suicide?” This was a question I was hoping to hear, as this blog has been criticised for using the “32 deaths per week” statistic. No response to that one, though! And what about corporate manslaughter? The issue wasn’t even raised, but the government – and Mr Grayling, together with his (now former) boss Iain Duncan Smith – might be guilty of killing thousands.

“Will claimants still get ESA while they ask for a reconsideration?” The current answer is no. Judging from the lack of response in the debate, that will remain the case.

Assessors’ lack of mental health knowledge came up time and time again.

One MP after another got up to speak, making it clear that they had all received multiple accounts of mistreatment at the hands of a company that clearly couldn’t give… well… Atos: “There cannot be an MP that hasn’t heard terrible constituent stories over WCAs.”

Labour MP Stephen Timms made some strong points. He pointed out the fluctuating nature of many claimants’ conditions, and warned that the work capability assessment does not take account of changes. “The WCA must not be a snapshot,” he said, and went on to add that the test needs “radical improvement”.

He admitted that Employment Support Allowance was a Labour initiative – but made it clear that the Coalition rolled it out before trials to ensure it was fit for purpose had been completed.

And Dame Anne Begg MP won praise for listing poor decisions by assessors and the failings at Atos, repeating, like a mantra: “When people feel this persecuted, there is something wrong with the system.”

She called for the contract to be re-written, saying it “can’t be fixed with a few tweaks here and there”.

Tom Greatrex, who opened the debate, said too many people were being found fit for work when they weren’t fit at all. He said the £60 million cost of appeals against assessment findings meant the taxpayer was effectively paying for a system that doesn’t work, then paying again to put it right. He said details of the Atos contract should be made public (a forlorn hope; confidentiality is a large part of many government contracts with private firms, although the Atos contract is particularly vague).

And he pointed out that, although Mr Grayling had said the transfer schedule for moving people off Incapacity Benefit and onto ESA was on-target, it was in fact very far behind, with waiting times up by 85 per cent.

Honourable mention was given to the disability campaigns Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle. Dishonourable mention was made of police brutality at last Friday’s protest outside the headquarters of Atos and the DWP in London.

Calls were made to reduce unnecessary assessments (of people whose condition was unlikely to change), anger was expressed that Atos is a sponsor of the Paralympics. The debate heard that applicants find the process of going through the Work Capability Assessment terrifying (I can personally attest to this, having witnessed my girlfriend’s. Terrifying and humiliating) – and that it was felt to take away their dignity as human beings.

Sadly, nobody called for a comprehensive study of the mortality rate.

Not one single Coalition backbencher indicated a desire to speak.

Amid all this, one online wit tweeted: “I do hope Osborne comes in at the end to take the now-traditional booing” – a reference to an incident the day before, which has already become infamous, when the Chancellor appeared at the Paralympics to hand out medals and was booed by the 60,000-strong stadium crowd.

Sonia Poulton, the Daily Mail columnist who became a campaigner against Atos, summed up the event: “W-C-A….SEIZE THE DAY! Yes, Labour started it, we ALL know that now…but Con-Dems butchered like never before. Time to get rid!”

If only we could.

For another perspective on the debate, please see the BBC website’s report at – oh. There isn’t one.

Welfare reform: will the Lords hold their nerve?

Today (February 14), the House of Lords will be debating the Welfare Reform Bill from 2.30pm. This is the Bill they sent back to the Commons with seven amendments, which MPs reversed out of hand. The government went on to state it would us ‘financial privilege’ rules to push the legislation through Parliament in its original form – an entirely undemocratic move that has led many to question the legality of the government’s tactics, and some to call for the Queen to deny Royal Assent to the Bill, on the grounds that it will not have been passed “in good faith”.

I think we all know by now that the aim of this Bill is to harm disabled people. The government has tried to create a myth about them being “benefit scroungers”, sponging off the State, but that has not succeeded with anyone other than readers of the Daily Mail. Ministers just want to take money away from those who are least able to defend themselves. Shame on them.

The question now is whether the Lords are prepared to stand up to the Coalition. Will they oppose the derisory attitude of their counterparts in the Commons, or will they just roll over and let democracy die out? How do they feel about the fact that their amendments were overturned? What do they think about the ‘financial privilege’ furore?

I suppose we’ll find out this afternoon, starting at 2.30pm.

For those of you with a deeper interest in the issues, I urge you to read Sue Marsh’s Diary of a Benefits Scrounger, but I will leave you with a quotation from today’s column: “At some point we must say “enough”. At some point, we have to accept that we have a broken system, broken procedures and that “majority rule” is not enough. If we have no checks and balances, no way to influence outcomes or mitigate harm, then the Commons is effectively a dictatorship – once elected free to wreak havoc wherever they see fit. Nothing in a manifesto, no hint of things to come, just a majority, cobbled together to deny process.”

I warned last week that we are seeing the signs of a dictatorship here. Do you really want to live under tyranny?

Welfare Reform Bill: a request for information

In April last year I wrote to my MP, Roger Williams (Liberal Democrat) regarding the Welfare Reform Bill and changes to Disability Living Allowance. He had sent me a letter from Maria Miller (a DWP minister, I believe), claiming that it should reassure me. It didn’t.

Now, as the government is ramrodding this vile Bill through Parliament using a procedure that is not valid (as far as any of us can tell), I’d like to resurrect some of the issues I raised with him then, and ask whether any of them have changed in the 10 months since.

If any readers have answers for me, or stories about their own experiences, please send them to me via the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the page.

‘According to the letter,’ I wrote, ‘there will be an “objective assessment of an individual’s need”, developed alongside “a group of independent specialists in disability, social care and health, which includes disabled people”. Who are these independent specialists? To which organisations do they belong? Are any of them members of groups which have previously criticised the assessment of Incapacity Benefit claimants, on which the DLA assessment will be based? This letter does not provide that information.’

Does anyone know, today, who these people might be?

‘The letter states: “I can assure you that it (the allegedly-objective assessment of an individual’s need) will not only take into account physical impairments, but also mental, intellectual, sensory and cognitive ones. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments.”

‘Before continuing, I would like to point out that taking information into account is not the same as making a decision based on it, and this comment cannot, therefore, be taken as an assurance of fairness.

‘As I understand it, the assessment will be carried out with the help of a computer, as has been the case with Incapacity Benefit since the new assessment for that benefit was introduced. Is this really the best way of analysing a person’s fitness for work? I don’t think so, and neither do charities working with the disabled, who have described it as a “blunt and unsophisticated tool”.

‘Let’s stay with the Incapacity assessment for a while. I think it is useful to use it as a way of gauging how the new DLA assessment will work because the latter will be based on the former. Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, we have all heard how people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work. In addition, people with mental health problems have complained their condition has not been taken seriously, and people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. “Ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments”? It doesn’t seem likely, in my opinion. Certainly not “effectively”.

‘A revised, even more stringent version of the assessment means blind claimants who can get around safely with a guide dog will be forced onto jobseekers allowance, as will deaf claimants who can read and write. Taking into account sensory impairments? Do you think this claim is justified?’

Is this still true?

‘To continue receiving benefit, a person must score 15 points. However:

‘*Claimants who can’t walk but who can use a manual wheelchair will no longer score points;’

Still accurate?

‘*References to hands have been removed from the picking up activity specifically in order to make it harder for amputees to score points;’

Is this still the case?

‘and *Some activities have simply been cut from the test altogether. For example, the activity of ‘Bending and kneeling’, for which 30 points are currently available, is to be completely removed for ‘health and safety reasons’ as people should not ‘bend forward when lifting’.’

Is this still the case? It seems strange to cut something from a test for health and safety reasons when at-work threats to a person’s health and safety are precisely the reason they are taking the test!

‘Half of all the scoring descriptors for mental health and learning difficulties have also been axed, making it much harder to get benefit for people with conditions such as depression or anxiety.’

Still true?

‘At the end of each session, the computer program generates a 25-page report summarising the person’s general state of health, and fitness for work. People with severe health problems who have been given zero points say that they have told their assessors what was wrong with them, and been met with a “computer-says-no” response.’

Still true?

‘Receipt of DLA means many claimants can also get free improvements to their homes from Social Services,’ I wrote. ‘How are disabled people supposed to get these improvements if they are downgraded to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which provides a lower amount that will be entirely spent on subsistence?’

I added that there is a level of vindictiveness in the assessment system, also.

‘The Guardian has reported on one man who was given only nine points in his first WCA, but went to tribunal, where the judge found him eligible for the higher level of benefit. Shortly after the tribunal he was called for another assessment, and this time was awarded zero points. At the time the article was printed, he was waiting to appeal a second time.

‘Part of the assessment has assessors extracting information sideways from claimants. People are asked: ‘Do you watch EastEnders or Coronation Street?’ If they say yes, then that’s interpreted as meaning they can sit in a chair for 30 minutes, and that they can concentrate for 30 minutes, and the assessor can then put this on their profile as indicating they are able to work. Ability to watch a TV show does not equal ability to work.

‘Assessors observe the claimants’ demeanour during the test. One report, explaining why a woman with mental health problems had been found ineligible for the benefit, states as justification that she “did not appear to be trembling . . . sweating . . . or make rocking movements”. The DWP manual states “rocking may indicate anxiety”. It may indeed, but this is not – and should not be interpreted as – the only possible indication of anxiety.

‘Let’s get back to the letter,’ I wrote. ‘It states: “Currently there are 11 possible different rates at which DLA can be paid, which makes it complex to administer. We are proposing two rates of benefit payable for each component. This will simplify the overall structure and make it easier to understand.” Hold on a moment! So what this means is the current system involves a bit of thought on the part of administrators that, reading between the lines, the current government is not prepared to support. Simplifying the structure would mean fewer different rates of payment – so there’s a saving to be made there – and also there will be a need for fewer people to administrate the system – so there’s another saving to be made.

‘This is all about money, isn’t it? Mr Grayling can carry on that there are no targets until he’s blue in the face, but the facts are telling a different story.’

I’m willing to bet that none of the above has changed, but I’d like to read comments from people who are more familiar with the system than I am.

I’d like to leave you with this thought: In 1930s Germany, the Nazis had the Jews. In today’s UK, the Coalition has the disabled. How long will it be before someone dies?

Or has that happened already?