The Department of Work and Pensions has indicated that it intends to roll out radical welfare-to-work reforms that could deny millions of disabled people adequate support, despite evidence of significant piloting failure.
The controversy surrounds the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaces the existing Incapacity Benefit (IB).
The aim behind the scheme, initiated by the previous Labour government, is to ‘encourage and support’ disabled people into work and to end ‘benefits dependency’.
But critics say that the purpose is also to scrimp and save public money, without adequate regard to the real needs and difficulties of highly vulnerable people.
Some 8,000 medical assessments are taking place every month at the moment. Already thousands of disabled people are being denied benefits they may be entitled to on the basis of these, the BBC is reporting.
Evidence from Scotland, compiled by Citizens Advice and revealed by the BBC ahead of the publication of a devastating report on the assessments with new claimants, is far from encouraging about the fitness for purpose of the new system.
So far, 60 per cent of applicants are being turned down, and the assessments carried out by private providers are accused of lacking thoroughness and expertise.
In two striking recent cases, a man who had to give up his work with severe psychosis was scored ‘zero’, and a woman forced by one test to leave long-term employment because of her ME was then contradictorily denied benefit on the grounds that she was 'fit for work'.
The woman concerned subsequently won an appeal. But current trends suggest that the failings of the system could lead to tens if not hundreds of thousands of appeals, costing millions of the very pounds which are supposed to be being ‘saved’.
Both Secretary of State for Scotland, Danny Alexander, and the academic at Bristol University who developed the ESA approach, say that the Department of Work and Pensions should consider holding back full implementation of assessments for some 2.6 million existing claimants, due to take place in October 2010, until existing failings have been addressed. But the new government says that, on the contrary, it will speed up implementation.
An assessor told Ekklesia that the idea spread by the tabloid press and others that Incapacity Benefit is a 'soft touch' is “nonsense”.
While all systems have their faults and abuses, both IB and ESA are particularly ill-adapted to people with mental health problems.
Medical assessments for Incapacity Benefit carried out by public providers were too short and lacked expertise, say critics. They often failed to recognise or acknowledge ‘fluctuation’ (good and bad days) or the impact of long-term problems like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).
These failings are being replicated and in some cases exceeded in ESA medical tests run by private companies like Atos, which stands to benefit financially from an £80 million contract.
Disabled people have now become ‘profit centres’, it seems. And the commercial and political incentives to deny them benefit are likely to worsen the injustice they face under the coalition government's ‘fairness and responsibility’ agenda.
See also: Citizens Advice Scotland Fact Sheet 44 - *.PDF Adobe Acrobat format (http://www.cas.org.uk/FileAccess.aspx?id=6665 ); Inclusion Scotland (http://www.inclusionscotland.org/ ), and the CAB Advise Guide (http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/ ).