Are disability benefits being cut covertly?

By Bernadette Meaden
September 23, 2016

When further cuts to disability benefits became politically risky, did the government cynically decide to make cuts anyway, but covertly, by simply denying support to people who desperately need  it?

This week, two disabled people contacted me, distressed that their benefits have been downgraded following an assessment, despite their conditions remaining the same. Both had been removed from the Support Group of Employment Support Allowance and placed in the Work Related Activity Group. This means that rather than being able to concentrate on managing their conditions, they will be obliged to take part in work-related activity or face a possible sanction.

One of the people who contacted me had supplied a letter from their GP to say their condition remained unchanged, which seems to have been ignored. The other said the decision had had a profound impact on their mental health, and felt that the DWP had not given sufficient weight to their suicidal ideation.

Alarmingly though, this seems evidence of a change implemented by the DWP, a change which seems designed to save money by denying people support.

New DWP figures show a sharp drop in the number of people placed in the Support Group after undergoing an assessment – it fell by 42 per cent in three months, between November 2015 and February 2016. During the same period, the proportion of applicants found 'fit for work' rose sharply, while those placed in the Work-Related Activity Group more than doubled. Significantly, from April 2017, new claimants placed in the WRAG group will see their benefit cut by almost £30 per week - they will receive what a healthy Jobseeker gets. So by adjusting the outcomes of assessments, the government will be able to save considerable sums from the disability benefits budget, without ever officially making a cut.

Most disturbingly, a change made by the DWP relates to people at risk of suicide. Maximus, the private company which carries out the assessments for the DWP, has issued new guidance to its assessors. In its Revised WCA Handbook, dated July 2016, we find, on page 138,

"The DWP has reviewed these guidelines and developed new guidance...The main change is that the focus on suicide has been reduced and the question of substantial risk placed in the context of work-related activity (WRA). The Department’s approach is that tailored WRA may be appropriate for most people with mental health conditions, including for people with suicidal thoughts.’

This, frankly, is shocking. Has the DWP forgotten Michael O’Sullivan?

Michael, aged 60, had been receiving Incapacity Benefit since 2000 due to severe anxiety, depression and agoraphobia. He suffered frequent panic attacks. In 2012 he was called for a Work Capability Assessment, where he was assessed for 12 minutes by a physiotherapist and found fit for work. His daughter Anne Marie said the experience left him “humiliated, mortified, and feeling like a criminal”. Michael appealed the decision but his appeal failed. He was told to attend a two week training course to qualify him to work on a building site. At the end of the first week he tried to take his own life. Michael’s GP certified him as unfit to work for six months, but after just four months the DWP called him in to another Work Capability Assessment. Assessed by a former surgeon, Michael was again found fit to work, although he had made it clear on his form that he had suicidal thoughts.

Placed on Jobseekers Allowance, Michael tried hard to meet the requirement to look for work, but could not get a job. He was then told by the DWP to go on a four week placement on a building site, for which he had to buy his own safety gear and tools. After washing and ironing five shirts for the week, Michael took his own life in the early hours of the Monday morning on which the placement was due to start. At his inquest the Coroner said, "the intense anxiety which triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions [benefits agency] as being fit for work".

Sadly, Michael is just one of many people whose deaths have been linked to a Work Capability Assessment. When looking at these tragic cases, one thing is striking. Many are people in their fifties or even sixties who have worked for perhaps thirty or forty years, but when they run into physical or mental health problems, the support any decent society would offer them is simply no longer there. The idea that a man like Michael, aged 60 and suffering severe anxiety and depression, can be harassed into looking for work, is appalling. The likelihood of him actually being able to get a job is very low. This is a drive to save money, at the cost of people’s health, and potentially at the cost of their lives.

Politicians persuaded many people that these savings are necessary, because spending on disability benefits was out of control. Nothing could be further from the truth. Last year the IFS reported that spending on out of work disability benefits, at 0.8 per cent of GDP, is now half of what it was at its peak in 1995/6. The number of individuals receiving these benefits has fallen since the mid-1990s, and "this is in the presence of underlying demographic change that would have tended to push up the numbers receiving considerably – both overall population growth and the baby boomer generation reaching older working ages. The proportion of older men receiving disability benefits has actually fallen sharply since the mid-1990s…’

So it seems that people like Michael have fallen victim to a political decision to remove the support that people in his situation desperately need. Some politicians may have said that Michael was ‘languishing’ on Incapacity Benefit. The reality is he was just about coping, and he was loved and cherished by his family, who were devastated when they lost him.

And now it seems there is a danger that after an assessment by, say, a physiotherapist , a medically unqualified Decision Maker at the DWP could decide that Work Related Activity might actually be good for a person with suicidal thoughts. From next April, that could save the DWP £30 per week per claimant.

IT IS VERY IMPORTANT for people to be aware of Rules 29 and 35, which state that a claimant should not be found fit for work (regulation 29), or placed in the ESA work-related activity group (regulation 35), if such a decision would pose “a substantial risk” to their “mental or physical health”. Last year the British Medical Association agreed to circulate information about these rules to GPs, and they still exist despite the recent changes in guidance for assessors. You can read about these rules by clicking here  So if you are concerned, it could be advisable to talk to your GP about these rules.

If these issues affect you and you need to talk to somebody, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are FREE and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.