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Earlier this week, both Channel 4 and the BBC gave us new documentaries about the way disabled people’s claims for state benefits are assessed. On Channel 4, Dispatches offered “Britain on the sick“, while the BBC’s Panorama was entitled “Disabled, or faking it?”. Both are available to watch on the web at the following addresses:
Both programmes were made to address the government’s focus on benefit cheats, and the narrative it has created that people claiming disability benefits are workshy scroungers who are perfectly capable of getting a job. This fiction has gained traction amongst the public and has led to verbal abuse and in some cases physical attacks on disabled people – including some on Disability Living Allowance who do have jobs (DLA is an in-work benefit, intended to defray the extra costs incurred when a person has to live with disability).
Let’s look at the official figures. The Department for Work and Pensions, which runs the disability benefit system, published a report called Fraud and Error in the Benefit System in February this year. It provided the following statistics:
For the financial year 2010-11, 0.8 per cent of benefit spending was overpaid due to fraud, amounting to £1.2 billion. This proportion was the same as in 2009-10.
For different benefits, this breaks down as follows: Retirement Pension 0.0 per cent; Incapacity Benefit 0.3 per cent (this is being changed to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) the subject of the documentaries); Disability Living Allowance 0.5 per cent; Council Tax Benefit 1.3 per cent; Housing Benefit 1.4 per cent; Pension Credit 1.6 per cent; Income Support 2.8 per cent; Jobseeker’s Allowance 3.4 per cent; Carer’s Allowance 3.9 per cent.
From these figures, we can see that the number of fraudulent claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance – able-bodied people claiming benefit while they look for work – is eight and a half times larger than for fraudulent disability benefit claims.
The £1.2 billion cost of fraud to the taxpayer is not a small amount, I’ll grant you – but the DWP is hoping to claw back £10 billion with its new assessment regime, run by the French company Atos. That’s almost 10 times as much money as is being paid out to fraudulent claimants.
Yet the department claims that people with a legitimate claim have nothing to fear.
Dispatches reporter Jackie Long stated: “[We have] uncovered evidence that a tough regime of tests is secretly trying to push almost 90 per cent of these claimants off the sick, to look for work.”
The programme took advantage of undercover filming to show the training process for an ESA assessor who would carry out Work Capability Assessments and then determine which group a claimant would join: the support group (for those whose disability meant they were likely to need permanent help from the state), the work-related activity group (for those whose disability should not prevent them from getting a job, with the right help), and those who are fit for work.
Early in the programme, the trainer states categorically: “This new benefit, Employment Support Allowance was meant to take people off the benefit.” And later: “This was specifically designed to take people off Incapacity Benefit.” She goes on to admit that any assessor who puts more than 12-13 per cent of their cases (about 1/8) into the support group will be “audited” – their work will be queried and they will be asked to put some of these people into the other groups.
The documentary featured interviews with people that demonstrated – graphically – how inadequate the test was; a man deemed able to work at a supermarket checkout who would have fallen asleep because of the high dosage of painkillers he’s taking; a woman who could lose a leg if she uses a wheelchair habitually – and has been working hard to avoid that – who was then told she could work if she used one and would not, therefore, receive benefit.
The test asks whether claimants are able to move an empty cardboard box or push a button. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, described it as “deeply flawed” and “outrageous”.
Even though Atos assessors’ decisions are final in 94 per cent of cases (DWP decision makers accept their advice), they are told they never need to worry about appeals against those decisions (which occur in more than 40 per cent of cases) and the tribunal hearings that take place (which cost £45 million per year) – they never go to the tribunals and won’t be blamed.
On both programmes, Atos and the DWP were adamant that the DWP has not set targets for assessors to follow. The evidence we have seen shows that they were lying.
The target is the percentage of people being put on the top rate of disability benefit – the support group. The trainer: “You are being watched carefully for the rate of support group. If it’s more than 12 or 13 per cent you will be fed back – your rate is too high. I do not set the criteria; that is what we are being told.” She said assessors would be constantly audited to see what they do. Another trainer said that figure came from the DWP.
When the doctor who carried out the training, and the undercover filming, was put to work, he carried out eight assessments – four of them were bounced back and he was told to take points off. The documentary’s producers contacted Atos, who expressed doubt about the doctor due to his political background.
Panorama followed case-histories also – the most noteworthy being that of the gentleman who was, for all intents, harassed by the system. Found fit for work despite being told to see a doctor by the assessor – the doctor discovered he had a critical heart condition – he won an appeal only to be contacted again, weeks later, with notification of a further assessment. At the time, he was waiting for a heart operation. Again found fit for work, he was waiting on a second appeal when he suffered a fatal heart attack. It could be argued that this man is dead because of DWP harassment.
Both documentaries featured claimants who had been wrongly placed into the work-related activity group – including one man who was sitting catatonic in a mental hospital at the time.
A doctor said the tests are adding to the cost of NHS work, rather than saving money, because people were booking GP appointments for the sake of their benefits, rather than their health.
Atos refused to be interviewed in either documentary, and details of its contract were hidden because they claimed it contained sensitive commercial information. But on Panorama, Employment Minister Chris Grayling, defending his regime, said: “We do not have a financial target for the reassessment of people on Incapacity Benefit, or for the level of new applications for ESa which are successful. There are no targets anywhere in the system, for numbers of people to move onto or off benefits.” As we have seen evidence proving the opposite, we know that this minister was lying.
And the most damning statistic of all: According to Panorama, every week, 32 people die after being declared “fit for work” by WCA assessors.
That means, at the time of writing, 960 people have died since January 1 this year, after being declared “fit for work”. The DWP, Atos, Mr Grayling and his DWP boss Iain Duncan Smith don’t just have blood on their hands – they’re swimming in it.