Hundreds of thousands of disabled and sick people will be wrongly found fit for work and lose vital financial support if government proposals timetabled for 28 January go through, a new analysis finds.
The Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012, were tabled at the end of last year but have not been discussed by Parliament. They will reduce entitlement to ESA, meaning that Work Capability Assessments will find even more genuinely sick and disabled people fit for work, says the briefing, which has been complied by a team of professional disabled people.
The group of campaigners, academics and freelance researchers warns that the government’s amendments will have a "huge and damaging impact" on the way peoples’ illnesses are reviewed.
The new briefing (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing ) has been co-published by project leader Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner and author of the influential blog, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, and the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia.
Co-author Sam Barnett-Cormack explained: “These tests are already deeply flawed. Making a series of assumptions without fully understanding a person’s condition, failing to take into account all impairments and putting a spurious division between physical and mental health is going to have a huge impact for the person involved.”
The government’s proposals include withdrawal of benefit if an assessor believes that medication would reduce the risks posed by a claimant's condition, seemingly without regard for whether it would be appropriate in a work context.
Under the changes, benefit will also be withdrawn if an assessor believes an adjustment could be made in a workplace, without explicit assessment of whether that adjustment is actually going to be available.
The 'imaginary wheelchair test', where assessors considers the effect on a claimant’s mobility were they to use a wheelchair and bases their decisions on these assumptions, is also to be extended to other aids and adaptions such as guide dogs, walking sticks and even prosthetic limbs, but without discussing the prospect of such aids with the claimant.
The government also proposes to deal with a claimant's physical and mental health conditions separately, rather than looking at the combined effects that physical and mental health has on a person’s ability to work.
Dr Stephen Carty, Medical Advisor for a leading disability activist group, Black Triangle Campaign, commented: “I have grave concerns about this guidance for decision makers. For an unqualified decision maker to presume to have a role in chronic pain management, or for that matter in any other element of health care provision, represents an ill-formed leap of faith into the abyss of complex risk management.”
Tom Greatrex, Labour and Co-operative MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, added: “The effect of these government changes is deeply concerning. The fact that people can be assessed as fit for work on the basis of an imaginary guide dog, without taking any account of the availability of guide dogs and the time taken to train both dogs and users, highlights just how far the DWP seem to be prepared to go to find people fit for work without the support they need to make work a reality.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, said: “What the coalition is proposing in these ESA/WCA changes runs entirely contrary to its claims to be protecting and supporting sick and disabled people in a climate of austerity, cutbacks and hardship.”
The authors of the briefing and their supporters are galvanising efforts to publicise the serious problems with Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations through a social media initiative using the hashtag #esaSOS on Twitter.
"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," concluded Sue Marsh.
With a whole raft of complex changes to benefits and welfare currently in process, charities, campaigners and specialists are also calling for an independent, cumulative impact assessment of these changes through the WOW petition.
* The Briefing on Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 can be read and downloaded in full, and as an executive summary, here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing 
* Press Release: 'Latest Work Capability Assessment proposals will worsen plight of sick and disabled people' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17811 
* Diary of a Benefit Scrounger - http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/  Sue Mrash was a lead author of the 2012 Spartacus Report (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA ), which exposed major flaws in the government's consultation and proposals for the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).