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;’
‘*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.’
‘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.’
‘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?