Alan Rigg has just been assessed as 100 per cent fit for work even though he suffers from adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression.
He has apparently fallen victim to a government “savings strategy” geared for a society in which no human beings exist – just money, pie charts and business.
The coalition has launched plans to reassess everyone currently on incapacity benefit, with the intention of forcing those “fit for work” out into a non-existent jobs market.
Rigg’s health problems had been previously diagnosed by a psychiatrist and were certified by his GP as a “long-term underlying mental health condition.” He is also deaf in one ear, has osteoarthritis and a bad back and knees.
But under the national reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants’ ability to work, currently being trialled in Burnley and Aberdeen, he has been judged perfectly well enough to go out and get a job.
“The first questions they ask are – how did you get here and did you travel alone? You’re deemed fit to work because you either drove there or coped with public transport, heard your name being called, walked 30 yards to the room and sat for 40 minutes in their chair,” Rigg says.
“Apparently the fact that I have had a problem with standing, sitting, bending and kneeling for several years did not apply.”
Millions of others like Rigg now facing the anxiety of being forced to go through the box-ticking exercise to assess whether they “should” be working, under what is known as the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
And there is good reason to worry. There have been cases of sufferers of Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, amputees and people with severe mental illness being found “fit for work,” with some even scoring 0 in a point-scoring system where a score of at least 15 is needed to prove that you are unfit.
Questions like “can you count back from 100?” and “can you walk 200 metres?” seem guaranteed to make sure that hardly anyone will qualify, with those who are mentally ill facing the greatest difficulty in ensuring they remain eligible.
Mental illness is notoriously difficult to assess and diagnose for even the most seasoned and experienced of professionals. As health charities have pointed out, mental illness can encompass a whole swathe of ability and disability, with symptoms varying from individual to individual – and for many sufferers, symptoms can vary from day to day.
“Basing an entire benefit on a point-scoring system rather than sound medical knowledge makes no sense,” says Rigg.
“Complex things that affect the mentally ill such as social situations, mood swings and emotions were not even discussed. Neither was my history of illness considered. Ticking boxes and deleting as applicable is not a ‘clinical examination’.”
A number of mental health charities have already raised concerns that the tests are too oriented towards assessing physical illness, and Mind has called for the test to be revised before it is rolled out nationwide.
The charity’s own figures show the majority of incapacity benefit claimants have mental health difficulties.
Richard Jones, 48, of Somerset, is one such claimant. He worked for the ambulance service before his acute clinical depression meant he needed to be signed off work in 1995.
He subsequently left the ambulance service but after a string of jobs it became all too clear that the deep-seated emotional problems brought on by his depression caused serious setbacks in his ability to work.
“I was very unhappy, tearful and suicidal at times,” he says. “I am still in this place now and have been fighting depression for years. I don’t think that depression ever leaves you.
“When the Work Capability Assessment was introduced it totally knocked me for six.
“I was given the impression that it had all gone OK. The way they inform you that it hasn’t is by letter. It’s outrageous. It just says that they will be stopping your incapacity benefit in a fortnight.
“If you have depression then one of the things you worry about is finance. I was in a hell of a state. I was feeling suicidal and this was like the final kick in the backside. The test is totally not right for people with mental health problems. It is literally costing lives.”
Jones had scored zero in the WCA, but those helping him prepare for his tribunal appeal felt his score should have been more like 20.
However, it’s not only the substance of the tests that has raised concern – the large amounts of money sloshing around in the background and the involvement of a privateer have prompted additional fears.
The government controversially decided that medical assessments would be carried out by a private company – Atos Healthcare, which is owned by parent company Atos Origin.
It has been employed on a £59 million contract from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out the reassessments. However this sum is only for the reassessments alone. The cost of the WCA contract itself is around £80 million.
Tony Greenstein of Brighton and Hove TUC unemployed workers’ centre is concerned that Atos’s profit motive could well colour how the assessments are carried out.
“The involvement and running of the programme by Atos is very important,” he says.
If it wants to keep its contract, a private company may well be under pressure “to fail as many people as possible” and is “unaccountable in how it carries this out.”
With the government determined to reduce the number of those who are claiming, “they don’t want assessments by doctors, still less one’s own GP,” says Greenstein.
The DWP says that health-care professionals who compile medical reports do not receive bonuses where DWP decision-makers have disallowed benefits. But the department does not hold any information regarding the amounts paid to Atos Healthcare staff.
Whether Atos itself awards bonuses to staff for “failing” claimants remains unclear. Despite several attempts by the Morning Star to contact Atos in order to clarify salaries or any bonuses it pays, no response has been received.
Although the DWP says that assessments are not target-driven, many are not reassured that the decisions being reached are the correct ones.
Stephen Dickinson suffers from mental illness and is unable to even speak on the phone due to his condition.
He was found not fit for work, but he questions why the health-care professional he saw was not a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist.
“My assessment was carried out by an Atos Healthcare doctor,” he says.
“I remain sceptical of his qualifications because he never explained what he was a doctor of.
“I still remain unsure how Atos have come to their conclusion. Should I ever need to, this will form the basis of any appeal I undertake.
“The assessment was basically him asking me the same questions that were on the form I had completed, as my condition was mental rather than physical.
“He told me that if I had indicated any physical ailments on the form I would have had to do some ‘exercises’ so he could assess my suitability for work.”
For those concerned about their benefit being snatched away from them there is some hope held out in the Welfare Reform Act 2007.
It requires that an independent review of any reform be brought before Parliament every year for the first five years of its operation.
The first of these independent reports will be carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington, who will publish his findings before the end of this year and aims to assess the effectiveness of WCAs, but only time will tell what such a review will find.
While the coalition seem hell-bent on making “savings” from the most vulnerable in society, let’s not forget that billions of pounds’ worth of benefits go unclaimed every year – a fact well documented by the Citizens Advice and numerous charities.
So it seems that rather than the coalition taking the initiative to help the most vulnerable to claim their entitled benefits, it prefers doing what it does best – take every last penny from them until there’s nothing left to take.
Source: The Morning Star online.co.uk - Will Stone Sunday 31 October 2010