Tuesday 15 January 2013

Employment Support Allowance Standard Letter

I reproduce below is the standard letter the Department for Work and Pensions sends to anyone who complains directly to them about their experience of a Work Capability Assessment, subsequent changes to their Employment Support Allowance, or the very real harassment people suffer from so-called "work providers".

Though written by a civil servant and not an explicitly political document, the letter is pretty appalling. Witness the repeat use of ideologically-loaded terms like 'claimant' and 'entitlement'. Notice how the sentences are carefully constructed to undermine the notion that some people are just not physically or mentally capable of having a job. See how immediately it casts people in receipt of incapacity payments as a £13bn burden on the taxpayer. And, of course, the idea that it is the benefits system preventing people from getting jobs, not that there aren't enough jobs (let alone suitable ones for people requiring additional support) is faithfully parroted.

The notion the WCA was devised "in close consultation with experts and disability organisations" is, what is called in the trade, "factually accurate" but is at the same time fundamentally dishonest about what both sets of groups have to say about this joke of a test. And the whole stuff about Atos professionalism is particularly tasteless, given the perverse decisions its "evidence" has led to.

Nevertheless, I hope the below is helpful for readers who are trying to get their heads around the labyrinthine issues of social security payments. While the government may be keen to simplify them in practice, they do very little to bring clarity and evidence to the political argument in defence of their bestial policy.

Dear Mrs Blogs,

Thank you for your recent correspondence about the assessment of entitlement to benefits for people who are not in work because of an incapacity or disability. Government Ministers receive a large volume of correspondence and they are unable to reply personally on every occasion. I have been asked to respond.

The Employment and Support Allowance is now the main benefit for people who are not in work because of a medical condition. Ministers understand the concerns that have been brought to their attention regarding the WCA, which determines entitlement to ESA. Ministers support the principle of the WCA, but have taken steps to address the reservations that they had on taking office about the way it was working.

Currently over 2 million people receive incapacity benefits, at a cost to the taxpayer of around £13bn a year. Ministers believe that many of these people, with the right support, could and indeed want to work but in many cases the previous system did not give them that opportunity. Policy in this area is supported by a large body of evidence that work is generally good for people. Ministers want to assess people as accurately as possible to ensure that they receive the most appropriate support and are able, where feasible, to move toward suitable employment.

Ministers are committed to supporting those who cannot work because of a health condition or disability, but they also want to help as many people as possible to find suitable work. To do this the Department needs a fair and accurate assessment. The WCA is designed to identify those claimants with disabilities or health conditions who remain capable of work given the right support. It does not seek to confirm the employability of a person at the time of undergoing the assessment. The WCA was designed in close consultation with experts and disability organisations.

The assessment focuses on what an individual can do, rather than assuming that a health condition or disability is automatically a barrier to work. Individuals claiming ESA can experience a wide range of functional effects from health conditions. Ministers are determined to ensure the WCA accurately reflects these.

The healthcare professionals who carry out the medical assessments are employed by Atos Healthcare, on behalf of the DWP. They receive training in accurately assessing fluctuating conditions and mental, intellectual and cognitive function. They must have had at least three years of broad-based post-registration experience and be approved by the Chief Medical Advisor to this Department.

Strict audit and quality control measures are in place to ensure that Atos delivers high-quality assessments. However, Atos does not make decisions on benefit entitlement. Decision makers in the Department consider their advice, along with any other appropriate evidence, to make a decision. The contract with Atos Healthcare contains no targets, or expected range or distribution of advice to decision makers for assessment outcomes. Formal complaints procedures are in place. If Atos Healthcare receives a complaint an Atos Customer Relations Manager will undertake a full investigation into all the issues raised and write back within 20 working days.

Following the assessment, people who face the greatest barriers to employment will receive the extra support they need as part of the Support Group within ESA. They can take part in work-related activity on a voluntary basis if they wish. People who could prepare for work, given support, will become part of the Work-Related Activity Group, and receive ESA if the conditions are met. People in this group will receive various forms of support. They may be asked to engage in various forms of work-related activity, including the Work Programme and work-focused meetings. People who are found capable of work at the time of the assessment will be invited to claim JSA if they satisfy the conditions of entitlement for that benefit.

As with most decision on benefits, there is a right of appeal. Decisions can be reconsidered and if they cannot be changed, they can be considered by a Tribunal, which will check that the relevant information has been taken into account and that the law has been applied correctly.

In order to ensure that the WCA is as fair and accurate as possible, the Department is committed to a process of ongoing review and improvement. As part of this Professor Malcolm Harrington, a highly respected Occupational Physician , has now carried out three independent reviews if the WCA. His third review together with the Government’s response, was published on 20th November 2012. Details of these reviews and the Government’s responses can be viewed through the policy/welfare reform/ESA section of the Department’s website.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, the simple fact the economy is shrinking at a faster rate than the population is growing is left out of the equation.
The whole thing reads like a horrible inversion of the social model of disability, so rather than acknowledging institutional arrangements prohibit 'disabled' people from participation, the assumption is that these problems have been disappeared, and the only barrier remaining is the lack of enthusiasm from 'claimants.'

Davud Walsh said...

Trying to find ATOS's complaint section on their website is akin to trying to pin down the site of El Dorado. Far better to go direct to a Tribunal who are normally fair.

Phil said...

Yes, people having problems with their ESA and dodgy WCAs should go down the appeal panel/tribunal route, and get their MP involved (if sympathetic). Complaining to Atos gets nowhere, and challenging the minister results in the standard issue letter reproduced above.