Over two million disabled people are being moved from Incapacity Benefit (IB) to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The move means they are assessed using a test called the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). ATOS is a private company that carries out these assessments.
These tests are causing a lot of fear and distress, and receiving more and more public attention. Why?
Most disabled people would like to work. In a perfect world employers would make room for them, accept the limitations caused by their disability, accept the limits on their productivity. The journey to work would be accessible to them. Support would be on hand at the work place.
In the real world it is much, much harder. But a glimmer of hope still exists that they can overcome these problems and it is great to support them in trying to work. And to support them if, and while they fail.
Is this what the new ESA benefit does? Absolutely not.
If people pass the first test and are awarded ESA they are then allocated to one of two groups – the Support Group or the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) and neither of these group offers flexible, intelligent support.
People in the WRAG are assessed as ‘on their way back to work’ and given ‘personalised support’ to do appropriate work. They are expected to take part in ‘work-focussed interviews’. Failure to attend can result in loss of benefits. As can failure to ‘take part fully’ in the interview.
Disabled people are fearful of being allocated to the WRAG because they would be subject to forced activity and sanctions, and potentially, with a deadline of one year, no benefits. For many disabled people, this regime is terrifying. They know the limits of their own disability. They understand that in a recession, jobs are scarce for the most able. They fear that the stress of attending compulsory appointments may make them more ill. They are terrified of what might happen if they miss, or are late for, one session. They are under pressure to find work within one year. The WRAG, which could have been a secure, helpful place, becomes terrifying. They then seize on the alternative, which is to be allocated to the Support Group, where benefits are secure, but ‘you won’t be expected to work’.
Despite this dismal prospect and its imposed lack of hope, many disabled people aim to be allocated to the Support Group for fear of the harsh conditions and unrealistic expectations in the WRAG. Even in the Support Group, there is no long-term comfort. Following a regular assessment, they could be moved to the WRAG at any point. For each assessment, the aim then becomes to remain in the Support Group rather than be moved to WRAG.
Any assessment can be appealed. But from April 2013, people appealing a WCA will be placed on same level of Jobseekers Allowance while they wait for a decision. This is a deliberate sanction to deter people from appealing.
I don’t know who designed this system, but it wasn’t anyone who understood the reality of disability. The reality is that neither group is suitable for most people, who need a group somewhere in the middle. A group where they feel secure enough to try to get to work, but aren’t threatened with loss of benefits if they fail. A group that understands that recovery sometimes takes two steps backwards as well as one baby step forward. A group that accepts that time scales can’t be decided in advance and that failure to meet deadlines can feel like a complete failure.
It’s good to look at the myriad problems around the WCA, but this focus runs a danger of missing the point. The WCA is allocating people between two groups, neither of which is fit for purpose.
Until ESA itself is redesigned to provide a group that does meet the needs of most disabled people, no amount of tinkering with the WCA can sort these problems out.
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