The government’s aim of helping people with disabilities into work is “laudable” but the process causes anxiety, MPs say. Channel 4 News hears the test is like “psychological warfare”.
A report by the Work and Pensions Committee found the incapacity benefit reassessment was not yet fully understood by claimants. It said the government needed to be “proactive” in explaining the aims of the process, and the support available.
Current claimants are being tested to see if they are deemed fit to work. If they are, they are given help through a new scheme, called the “work programme”. Those who not seen as able to work are moved onto a new benefit called the Employment and Support Allowance.
Elaine Edwards had the test in June 2010, and was initially found fit to work, although she went to a tribunal to fight the decision and won her appeal to have her benefits reinstated.
She told Channel 4 News that at the time of the test, she had been “doing everything possible” to make herself better.
“I was starting to get to the stage where I was fit to self-care most days – I was eating a meal most days, sometimes being able to wash up and sometimes being able to go shopping,” she said.
“And then, when I was declared fit for work, I basically had a nervous breakdown. I felt very let down by the whole system. When you are a conscientious person who is doing their best to get better, being treated like that is quite upsetting. It felt like psychological warfare and it was torture.
“People on benefits are depicted as being work-shy, scrounging and living it up with nice TVs. You feel as if you mean nothing – you are basically told you are a waste of money.”
That is a feeling that charity Disability Alliance told Channel 4 News is shared by other people who have been through the assessment. Director of policy, Neil Coyle, said they were frequently contacted by people who found the process “extremely degrading and humiliating”.
He warned that the charity was concerned the tests could end up “pushing people further from work, undermining the objectives of reform”.
The committee chair, Dame Anne Begg, said: “The Government’s aim of helping benefit claimants back into work is laudable, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which surrounds the process. People are suspicious that the Government’s only objective is to save money.”
The report said it was “widely accepted” that the test used to assess people was “flawed” and that this was borne out by the high number of people who appealed the result of their test. It quoted figures from the Justice Select Committee which showed that there were an estimated 370,000 appeals heard by the Tribunals Service in 2010-11.
Around 40 per cent of appeals heard between October 2008 and August 2009 were found in favour of the claimant. The report added that the government had acknowledged the test needed to be refined.
You feel as if you mean nothing – you are basically told you are a waste of money, Elaine Edwards
Charity Rethink Mental Illness said the report echoed many of its concerns about the test. Associate Director of Campaigns, Jane Harris, said that they agreed that the benefits system needed simplifying but said many people were finding it stressful.
“Some have even said it’s making them feel suicidal,” she said.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said that they were committed to improving the way people were tested.
“The assessment is about helping people who can work get back into employment, and we have been clear that disabled people who need unconditional support will receive it,” he said.
“It is vital that we also support people who were written off to a lifetime on benefits into jobs and our new Work Programme will help them overcome the barriers they face to get back into work.”