Friday, August 13, 2010

ESA: It Doesn't Add Up

This is cross-posted from Where's The Benefit, a new team-written blog aiming to counter-campaign against the government's distressing War on Welfare Claimants. This was my first post for WtB, so don't be too mean about it. Thank you.

The government now has two different, simultaneous official responses to the medical tests for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008 for those who cannot work due to illness or disability. These responses, unsurprisingly, contradict each other.

On the one hand, Chris Grayling wants the rules "tightened" to make it harder to claim benefits. He seems particularly concerned about people who start a claim for ESA and then discontinue it before they reach the top of the queue for their medical test (apparently without considering legitimate reasons why this might happen, such as an improvement in health). That's Official Government Opinion on ESA Medicals Number 1. As usual, the rhetoric is that we must weed out as many 'scroungers' as possible. As usual, important relevant facts are missing - in this case, that the level of benefit received while waiting for a medical assessment is the same low rate that Jobseekers' Allowance claimants receive. I'm not entirely sure the figures add up, either.

Yet a few months ago, a group of nineteen disability- and welfare-related organisations, led by the Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB), released a report calling for a review of the medical test for ESA. In particular, the report highlighted concerns over a low success rate among ESA claimants - rates which Disability Alliance clearly states here. It also offered evidence of the "limited effectiveness of the assessment", and poor treatment by medical assessors, which they claim especially fails those with more complex medical conditions. Examples of CAB clients who had failed the test included "people in the advanced stages of Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis, people with severe mental illness, and [people] awaiting open heart surgery." Lisa and incurable hippie have already posted about cases that demonstrate the problems associated with the target-driven medical assessors who conduct the ESA medicals. This report confirms that these are far from being isolated cases.

In response to the report and the organisations' concerns, the government has now agreed to an urgent review into the Work Capability Test, the medical assessment for ESA. In response to comments from the review group, Grayling appeared to support the review. He said that he understood claimants' concerns and anxieties, and that the tests needed to be "applied sensitively". So that would be Official Government Opinion on ESA Medicals Number 2, then.

The review group will report on the Work Capability Test towards the end of this year. We might expect a responsible government to reduce the negative rhetoric that the group has already complained about, and leave further ESA-related comments until after the publication of their report. Which makes Chris Grayling's comments this week all the more concerning. Even more worrying is the way the government uses similar statistics as those that led to calls for a review. Remember that concern in the CAB report over the low success rate among people claiming ESA? The government thinks it just demonstrates how many people are capable of work.

In fairness to the media, there are some newspapers that have highlighted the ways in which the government has spun these figures to its own advantage. This article also highlights the fact that four in ten appeals by people who have been refused ESA are successful. This may not be a huge percentage, but it certainly suggests that significant numbers of claimants are unfairly becoming victims of the government's cost-cutting approach. No wonder there's so much anxiety around the ESA medical assessments. Anxiety that won't help those who already have long-term illnesses, or mental health problems, or acute life-threatening conditions - or who are already living in fear and poverty as a result of the War on Welfare Claimants.

Our caring Tory government: capable of viewing the same results of ESA testing as both a serious concern for the poor sick people who are being refused help and a triumph for the scroungers who are being rooted out. But mainly the second one.

Don't forget that you can contribute towards the review of the Work Capability Test, as incurable hippie posted recently, if you have any experiences that you think would be useful to the group conducting the review process.

Thanks to members of the BBC Ouch messageboard for sharing some of the links in this post.