The new Employment Support Allowance emergency (#esaSOS)

On 28 January 2013 the government is due to make a set of changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the flawed ‘fitness to work’ test which assesses whether sick and disabled people can get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a benefit designed to help and support very unwell or profoundly disabled people into work.

Although these changes have been advertised as small ‘amendments’, they will in fact have a huge impact on the way people’s illnesses and disabilities are assessed. Many vulnerable people’s needs will suddenly be able to be overlooked or ignored, meaning they could end up losing the support they desperately need to manage their conditions. Hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people across Britain will be hit.

A full Briefing on Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012, written by a team of expert disabled people, is published today on Ekklesia (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing) and through my site (http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/). But it is worth spelling out in less formal terms what is wrong with what the government is proposing.

The first problem is false assumptions. In the fitness to work test, your needs are assessed by a ‘healthcare professional’ employed by the French private company ATOS. This assessor doesn’t just need to look at your current difficulties. For example, they can also imagine how using an aid (for example, a wheelchair) might improve your ability to work and make a judgement based on that – without even asking your opinion.

However, soon this “imaginary test” will be able to be used for many more aids (including guide dogs and false limbs). This means that soon thousands more people could be judged as fit to work, without being asked about why the assessor’s “imaginary aid” might not be appropriate for them.

It gets worse. Even if returning to work may clearly put you at risk, these changes will mean you can still lose your disability benefit – as long as the assessor believes that trying a new therapy or treatment might reduce that risk. In other words: yet another guessing game, with your health at stake!

Imagine Bert, who suffers from severe schizophrenia, but is found fit to work because a behavioural therapy may help improve his condition. Yet, in making that decision, the assessor would not have to look at several vital questions: how hard it would be for Bert to get that therapy? How long would an NHS appointment take to organize? Are there private options in his area – and could he afford them if so? What if the therapy doesn’t work, or takes a long time to adjust to?

If the government’s rule changes go through, people like Bert who are desperate to work will find it nearly impossible to get an accurate assessment, affecting the quality of their support and even preventing their efforts to get back into work.

The second problem is separating physical and mental health. The government is also trying to change the way people’s conditions are assessed by dividing health problems into two separate boxes: ‘physical’ and ‘mental’. When looking at what tasks people can do, only the ‘physical half’ of the test will apply to those with physical disabilities. The same goes for the effects of treatment: for example, if you’re taking mental health medication, only mental health side-effects will be looked at.

This completely fails to understand the way that many disabilities and illnesses can lead to both physical and mental effects. This is also the case for many common treatments: such as those for schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Think of Emily, who suffers severe, chronic pain because of nerve damage to her leg. Emily is among the 49% of chronic painsuffers who also suffer depression as a result of continuous pain. An assessor may see Emily as able to do some work as long as she takes strong painkillers for the rest of her life, meaning she could pass the ‘fitness’ test. Yet the painkillers may not deal with the depression caused by her condition. Painkillers have also often been shown to affect people’s wakefulness and decision-making. So taking the medication may affect Emily’s ability to do a job in a completely new way – yet these new problems would not need to be looked at by the assessor when making their decision.

Pretending the effects of illnesses and disabilities can be separated in this way goes against all medical practice. Going even further, and using this method to ignore sick and disabled people’s needs, is at best hopeless policy, and at worst deliberate cruelty. We cannot let the government treat some of the most vulnerable people in British society in this way.

The main way you can help is by spreading the message about these changes to ESA. The government have tried to sneak them under the radar. You can email your MP (http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/), share our briefing (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing) and press release (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17811) on social media platforms (the Twitter hashtag is #esaSOS), raise the issues of injustice involved in the civic and community organisations you are involved in, and sign the WOW petition calling for an independent, cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform in Britain (http://wowpetition.com).

* 'Thousands of disabled and sick people will be hit by new ESA/WCA changes': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17812

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© Sue Marsh contributed to the new Briefing on Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing) as project leader. She was one the the authors of the original Spartacus report, 'Responsible Reform' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA), which exposed the lack of support and proper verification behind the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA). She has lived with severe Crohn's Disease for nearly three decades, and campaigns to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and long term illness. She spoke on welfare reform at the 2012 Greenbelt Festival, as part of a Children's Society / Ekklesia panel. Her 'Diary of a Benefit Scrounger' blog, from which this post is adapted, can be found here: http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/ Sue also writes for the Guardian's Comment-is-Free website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/marsh-sue Her Ekklesia blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/suemarsh

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