Sick and disabled people are being pushed off
benefits at any cost
As Panorama showed, the pressure on medical assessors to declare
sickness benefits claimants fit for work is immense
o Sharon Brennan
o guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 31 July 2012 11.03 BST
Employment minister Chris Grayling told the BBC 'there are no targets anywhere in the system'.
Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Viewers of last night's Panorama programme, Disabled or Faking it?, may have been
shocked by the story of Stephen Hill, the man who died of a heart attack 39 days after
he was declared fit to work by a government contractor and subsequently denied
sickness benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But for those of us
who have been voicing serious concerns about the government's changes to
employment support allowance (ESA), the story was met with both exasperation and
A parliamentary question found that 31 people have died in the three years to last
October while appealing against decisions that they were able to work. Panorama also
revealed that between January and August last year, on average 32 people died every
week who the government had declared could be helped back into work in the medium
To receive ESA, the new incapacity benefit, the vast majority of claimants have to pass
a working capability assessment (WCA) – a short medical test carried out by
government contractor Atos Healthcare. The WCA is so consistently failing to recognise
those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in
uproar. The cost to the government alone is staggering. Appeals against incorrect WCA
decisions are costing £50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and
increase staff by 30% to deal with the backlog. Appeals find in favour of the claimant in
at least 30% of cases, according to the government's own statistics – although Neil
Bateman, a welfare adviser featured on Panorama, believes this rises to a staggering
80-90% if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.
With such high costs to the taxpayer to manage the assessment and appeal process
plus the health implications to those British citizens left abandoned by the government
when they are most in need of help, the coalition must find a commonsense approach
to the ESA.
Firstly, it needs to be open about the allegation that the government and/or Atos have
been set targets to minimise the number of people that can be found incapable of work.
The DWP and Atos Healthcare both gave firm rebuttals to this allegation by both
Panorama and Dispatches, which also aired a programme last night looking into the
same issue of sickness benefit. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told the BBC
that "there are no targets anywhere in the system", although the government refused to
allow the broadcaster to see the full contract it holds with Atos.
But both programmes uncovered a system in which assessors would be put on
"targeted audit" if they were found to put too many people into the "support group" of
ESA, with Dispatches uncovering that only about 12-13% of people should be found
unable to do any work at all. Steve Bick, the doctor working undercover in Atos for
Dispatches, said that of the eight cases he dealt with before resigning, he was asked by
Atos hierarchy to review his decision on four of them. As one assessor put it in
Panorama, such a system "creates a feeling there are indeed targets". If we are to
believe the government's statement that targets are not set, then something is clearly
going wrong between the instructions given to Atos by the DWP and the spirit with
which they are implemented by assessors on the ground.
Moreover, with Atos's government contract valued at £100m a year, it is reasonable to
expect it to have some financial accountability for the high rate of successful appeals.
However, Dispatches revealed this isn't the case. As one Atos trainer states: "The thing
for us is, even if you made the wrong decision … you never go to the tribunal. So, sort
of, you won't be blamed."
The medical test in its current form isn't fit for purpose, and the government's contract
with Atos Healthcare isn't providing the value for money that taxpayers deserve. It is
reasonable that the government suspends its relentless reassessment of 11,000
sickness benefits claimants every week until practical changes can be made to the
medical test that protect the genuinely sick and disabled.
Yet, in a worrying development, professor Malcolm Harrington, shown criticising the
WCA in last night's Panorama programme, was removed from his post yesterday as an
independent adviser to the government on the WCA. He insists he hasn't been sacked,
but the move will add to concerns by leading charities and 44,000 GPs that the
government has little interest in listening to critics of the WCA. Perhaps the greatest
concern raised by the two programmes is how committed the government is to making
changes to a system that Grayling believes is providing "tough love". In research
released last week by the Institute for Employment Studies, carried out on behalf of the
DWP, 25% of ESA claimants that had been found fit to work are neither back in
employment nor receiving benefits – a statistic the DWP seems unconcerned by.
It is this government's laissez faire attitude to whether those thrown off sickness
benefits are able to move into the workplace that makes campaigners believe that
underlying the harshness of this medical test is a desire to reduce the welfare bill at any
cost. No wonder sick and disabled people throughout the country live in real fear of
when the next brown envelope from the DWP will drop through their door.