Disabled people failed by harsh benefit test

// 23 March 2010

Thousands of chronically ill and disabled people are being let down by the medical tests for the Government’s new disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, reports the BBC. Citizens Advice has criticised the tests as “crude” and pointed to the startling statistic that 68% of claimants are being found fit for work. The independent advice website Benefits and Work reports that of the remaining 32% of claimants, 23% are placed in a ‘work-related activity group’ – meaning they have to attend regular interviews with the aim of getting them back to work. Only 9% of claimants so far have been placed in the ‘support group’, which is the equivalent of the old Incapacity Benefit. Considering ESA replaces a benefit which had an extremely low fraud rate as it was*, these percentages expose the new system as shockingly harsh.

The test which makes the decision about fitness for work is called the Work Capability Assessment, and it is carried out by a private company called Atos, not by the DWP itself. Standard questions are asked and the assessor – who is often not a doctor – fills in boxes on a computer database, which then calculates the claimant’s ‘points’ (a certain number of points must be achieved before a claimant can be found unfit for work).

Citizens Advice spokesperson David Harker had this to say about it (via the BBC):

“The people that we talk to talk about something done very speedily, often no eye contact being made with the applicant, and the person staring at the computer screen asking very, very rigid questions. Seriously ill and disabled people are being severely let down by the crude approach of the Work Capability Assessment.”

Indeed both the assessment and the application forms are based on simple tasks such as walking very short distances or lifting the arms above the head; tasks which have no bearing on a person’s ability to do even a part time job, let alone a full time week of 35 hours’ work, and are completely irrelevant to conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The tests are not sensitive enough to fluctuating conditions or mental illnesses, say the CAB, and, reports the Guardian, “do not properly recognise the effects of pain and exhaustion”. I agree – I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could assess a person’s ability to work for seven hours a day, five days a week, based on brief, single performances of very basic physical tasks.

None of this will be news to anyone suffering from a chronic illness or disability, who has had to rely on state benefits for income. At the time ESA was announced, the Government insisted that hundreds of thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit would be ‘liberated’ from a life dependent on the welfare state. However the Government simply deciding that it disapproved of a life on welfare, or no longer wanted to pay for these benefits, funnily enough did not make illness and disability magically disappear. The result of this cost-cutting attempt, this goalpost-moving exercise, was always going to be what we are seeing now – thousands of chronically ill and disabled people being told unfairly that they can work, with all the consequences such as stress and poverty that brings, and thousands more appeals and tribunals which will end up costing the DWP more money, not less.

Sadly, although the DWP has made vaguely reassuring noises about addressing the CAB’s concerns, Work and Pensions minister Yvette Cooper has announced that soon, existing Incapacity Benefit claimants (whose claims began before ESA was introduced) will start to be herded onto ESA. She is still talking about this benefit in terms of it being a liberating force, not the punitive measure that it is.

Disabled people have so much to deal with already – with our medical conditions, with reduced access to the world, with prejudice from society, with bullying and intimidation, with increased risk of domestic abuse – and now evidently with a Government that refuses to accept its responsibility to support us financially if needs be. There is no shame in needing support – benefit claimants for the most part are not scroungers – but there is plenty in not providing it to those in need.

*Figures can be found here (direct link to Word document).

Comments From You

earwicga // Posted 23 March 2010 at 6:25 pm

Punitive is absolutely the word! The CAB report is here: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/campaigns/policy_campaign_publications/evidence_reports/er_benefitsandtaxcredits/not_working.htm and is a sobering read.

Macmillan report is here: http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Documents/GetInvolved/Campaigns/Benefits/FailedByTheSystemReport.pdf

I remember taking my mother to a medical assessment for benefits many years ago when she was waiting for a hysterectomy, where I was shocked at the visably ill people there also waiting for assessment. That was under a tory government. I could never have imagined that a Labour government would continue to punish the poor, let alone be punishing terminally ill cancer patients, those with severe mental health problems, and many many people who are too ill to work and need and deserve support from the state. Absolutely vile! Yvette Cooper should hang her head in shame.

saranga // Posted 23 March 2010 at 10:19 pm

Colleagues working for employment support agencies have told me how terminally ill people have been sent to them as fit for work.

can you appeal the results of the work capbility assessment?

To rely on an appeals procedures is not by any means a perfect way to do things, and lots of people won’t have the energy/time/enough manageable pain days (spoon theory anybody?) to be able to do so, but as a short term measure (until we can convince the govt to fix this bloody stupid situation), it could be worth appealing, if you can.

Jo // Posted 23 March 2010 at 11:38 pm

I’m currently in the middle of an appeal for ESA due to severe mental health problems. To actually receive the benefit i had to apply twice and it was constantly cut off, all leading to me becoming homeless for a while and having a devastating effect on my health. The medical assessment was short and barely covered anything relevent to my problems, and if it did it was reported in a way that made them seem irrelevent. In my notes it reports that i was “not anxious” on the basis that i wasn’t “visibly sweating” or “rocking repeatedly”….crazy!

I’m dreading what comes next..

Abi_MK // Posted 24 March 2010 at 10:14 am

I had my assessment last Friday. As somebody who has severe depression and agoraphobia, I found myself needing to travel on public transport and needing three buses to get to Aylesbury for an early appointment of 9:15am. Meaning I was up at 4:30am and on my first bus at 6:20am. I suffered two panic attacks on the way and once at the assessment centre I was told one of the Doctors had not turned up so I would have a bit of a wait. I was finally seen at 2:30pm. By that time I was totally incapable of giving any informed response because my anxiety levels where so high I was totally incoherent.

The assessment only lasted 10 mins then I had to endure the journey back to Milton Keynes amongst all the school kids returning home.

The stress and anxiety of the whole experience left me totally incapable to do anything for the next three days. I still have a high degree of anxiety about the outcome of the assessment and If anything it has set back my recovery!


Ally // Posted 24 March 2010 at 8:41 pm

@Abi and others

You may not know the answer to this but:

If you aren’t claiming for something that they could physically assess by seeing you, why isn’t it possible to do the interview over the phone with supporting evidence from psychiatric reports?

mornington // Posted 25 March 2010 at 4:48 pm

I have to admit, the prospect of having to go through ESA assessment is one of the reasons I so desperately want to stay in academia (I am coming to the end of an undergraduate degree). My fibromyalgia doesn’t prevent me from passing a lot of tests (I can still walk 75% of the time, even if it’s slowly), but it does prevent me from working a full-time job as I simply don’t have the energy to get through a “regular” day.

The pdf leaflet – which contains the points system used – is here: http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/JCP/stellent/groups/jcp/documents/websitecontent/dev_015887.pdf

It doesn’t contain anything (that I can spot) for “can stand up for 10 minutes one day but whether or not she can tomorrow is anyone’s guess”.

Pam // Posted 26 March 2010 at 8:51 pm

I have just had my incapacity benefit stopped after ‘failing’ the work capability test. In the last 3 years I have suffered a tumour on a nerve in my neck which causes (horrendous)constant pain down my right arm and hand – had unsuccessful operation in cervical spine Oct 06, a brain avm (a malformation of blood vessels and arteries in the brain – possibly resulting in hemorrhage – causing possible stroke or death) – had radiosurgery for this January 08. Four days later had grand mal seizure, with four further petit mal seizures – diagnosis epilepsy. Developed generalised osteoarthosis, mainly in fingers, wrists and back. Laminectomy operation in lumbar spine December 08. Current situation is that the radiosurgery has failed to close up the brain avm, therefore still at risk. Bone was taken out of my neck to allow room for the tumour to grow therefore reducing the agonising pain. The laminectomy seems to have failed in that I am unable to walk more than 300m at a time – awaiting further treatment for this. To sum up, I am 46 years old, am on a shed load of pain killers including morphine, on anti-convulsant medication, am waiting for my brain to ‘cure’ (this should have taken two years – but they will scan to check again next year) and (NHS waiting lists permitted) waiting for further treatment on my lower spine – but hey – I am ‘fit for work’ – not!!!

Jo // Posted 15 April 2010 at 11:47 pm

Interesting that Yvette Cooper’s policies are so intolerant of illness ( instead being of the ‘if you can move, you can do a full-time job school’), including such long-term fluctuating illnesses as Chronic Fatigue, since she herself has suffered from it in the past.

Excerpts from her 1996 article in The Independent, where she complains about others unsympathetic attitude to the long-term sick:

For that’s what this is all about: fear. The thought of being struck down for years on end, condemned to a 12-month hangover or a 24-month bout of flu is pretty scary. How much easier it becomes to handle if we can tell ourselves it will never happen to us – because that illness is someone else’s fault.


Not only do you have to have a successful career and family, but you also have to be super-healthy too. Fall ill and you are a failure, because illness is something super-people know how to avoid. Fall ill with CFS and you are definitely a hopeless case, who got your lifestyle entirely wrong.


Amy Clare // Posted 16 April 2010 at 8:28 am


That’s very interesting, I didn’t know that about Yvette Cooper. Just makes it all the more sad that she is now throwing chronically ill and disabled people under the bus, doesn’t it? :o/

By the way, an update to the story: I learned the other day that instead of taking on board the criticisms about the work capability assessment, Cooper has actually approved plans to make it *even harder* to pass. It beggars belief, really. Details here.

anne // Posted 12 May 2010 at 2:16 pm

I am almost 59 and have just been for a medical assessment, which I found totally humiliating and not related to my capability to work at all. I was assessed as being able to look after my own food provision because I prepare porridge and soup (electric can opener and heat) in a microwave oven and sandwiches. That’s a good healthy diet.

I was asked if I travelled alone to the assessment and how long it took, and this was noted presumably to prove if I could travel by car and taxi for half an hour I am capable of working. But I was given mobility allowance because I can’t walk far or use public transport because of ME. I wasn’t asked details of how my job affected me before I was medically retired. I’ve worked 21 years in the Civil Service. I loved it, I’d still be there if I was able. Why would I choose to be at home sick,bored and depressed? I object to being treated like a scrounger when I’ve paid my contributions all those years. This assessment is designed to prevent genuine claimants getting ESA as well as malingerers.

Anon // Posted 18 June 2010 at 2:40 pm

I suffer from depression and agorophobia just like Abi_MK, caused by bullying in my last employment.

Those who are long term unemployed and on ESA are being forced to return to work when they are not well enough to do so yet I am being told that I need to be on ESA for at least 6 months before I am eligible for the support I need to return to work. I had to put in a complaint just to make some progress.

I don’t understand how the ESA scheme works at all.

Gill Day // Posted 21 June 2010 at 2:50 pm

I have just learned that my degenerative disc disease which is worsening by the day is magically going to disappear wihtin a year. I’d be delighted if it did. Aparently also the surgeon who operated on me in 2002 just decided he had nothing better to do that day so why not. Bearing in mind that spinal surgery carried the greatest risks of all. Or was the surgery my imagination too. Some clerk with no medical knowledge, at the DWP has decided that I am faking it and simply sponging off the tax payer. Since surgery however, I have gone to extraordinary lengths to get qualifications to help me back to work. There is no help available so I must pay for private tuition. If my DLA continued for 3 years then I would be qualified and off all benefits. Without my DLA there isn’t a hope in hell of me getting off benefits. It seems that the Government wants to push me out to work wihtout the qualifications I need whihc means that I would need to work for a minimum of 60 hours per week and study for another 35 to 40 hours per week. That is on top of all the house hold chores and paperwork that I am already bogged down with. Paperwork from other Government Depts, Banks and everyone else who makes endless balls ups at my expense. It is time consuming and depressing. Yet I seem to have about 120 plus per week at my disposal in which I could easily do all this. I find it hard to stay awake for kore than 10 hours per day due to the chronic pain and faitigue. Working for all those hours would require an enormous amount of sitting down which already causes me terrible problems. If I sit for 10 minutes my legs and feet are numb. The only way to deal with that is to get up and move around which causes pins and needles and excrucuating pain. How am I going to manage more than 100 hours per week?

Ray // Posted 17 November 2010 at 3:29 pm

You have to be dead to get anything this lot just don’t care .

Irene Simonet // Posted 1 March 2011 at 7:02 pm

My brother in law has serious heart complaints/disease, diabetes and is deaf. His appeal failed, he has had his money stopped because they say he is fit for work. This was despite the Specialist doctors saying he would never be fit for work. He can carry an empty cardboard box from one side of the room to another on some days but onothers he cannot. Whatever job entails carrying single cardboard boxes about? these panelists do not live in the real world. Without benefits, he will die, he will not be able to buy food to live/balance his insulin. He will not be able to live in his rented house as he can’t pay the rent. He will end up living in the cardboard box they say he can carry. This is so wrong.

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