Dr Lisa McKenzie, Standing Against IDS

Interviewed by Mark McGowan The Artist Taxi Driver (see also her article in the Guardian here)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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The monumental Maximus challenge

Maximarse

How on earth can they fix this?

In order to make some sense of this, I’d ask you to have a good look at why the DWP’s highly misleading state of almost calm on the Employment & Support Allowance front should be considered as the perfect recipe for impending chaos. Do not for one minute be fooled into thinking that the current ‘signs of improvement’ (notably more people in the Support Group) and fewer appeals are something to applaud.

Just for now, forget universal credit, forget the bedroom tax, forget the benefit cap and focus your attention on something that has already affected a massive 4.8 million people. It sounds astonishing, but this is the staggering number of benefit claimants who have been dragged through the wretched Work Capability Assessment (WCA), either by a full on face to face assessment or at a paper assessment where a civil servant looks up your often chronic medical condition by carrying out nothing more than a Google search before making a decision on whether you are deemed ‘fit for work’ or ‘able to prepare for work’.

Up until the middle of last year, the work assessments were conducted by the infamous Atos who wisely deserted the sinking ship. More recently Maximus have taken up the reins, unsurprisingly they’ve already made a start with the kind of corporate spiel we should expect of a global giant who have just bagged a reported £500 million contract to deliver more assessment tests in the ‘cost efficient’ way expected by the DWP. They do so under the clueless direction of failed Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who continues to twist figures and overstate the case whilst conducting these mammoth reforms on a shoe – string budget handed to him by his benefit hating chancellor George Osborne.

Unsurprisingly, Maximus are giving early signs of a more positive ‘customer experience’, but don’t forget they are only a means of conveying thousands through work assessments which remain much as they were when first introduced in October 2008. Maximus will be using many of the same staff as their predecessors and will continue to use the Lima points scoring system which determines a claimant’s fate at the hands of health professionals who by and large spend more time keying in ‘clinical findings’ on their laptops than constructively engaging in a two way dialogue with the person in front of them.  Consider Maximus as a train operator, they can paint the carriages in a fancy new livery, even serve their customers with a smile, but remember IDS very much remains in charge of the track. Whatever the journey, the destination will always remain the same – reducing the claimant count by any means available.

And that’s the problem, it’s all wishful thinking.  The reality is these chronic ‘journeys’ are besieged with horrendous delays, subject to continual derailment, never on time, they never pay regard to where people need to get on or off, but worst of all is the disgusting number of ‘jumpers’ found dead on the line.

4.8 million Work Capability Assessments have achieved nothing, just 26,670 job outcomes of at least 3 months when looking at all ESA/incapacity related claimants. The promise of lucrative ‘payment by result’ job outcome results to private Work Programme providers has netted an abysmally low number of sick claimants back in to work. It’s a damning indictment of a prohibitively costly programme which is producing no economic return whatsoever. Tax payer’s are being conned left, right & centre by the provocative right wing newspaper headlines telling them that thousands are being found fit for work.

Maximus will be ordered to redress the balance by finding more people fit for work, placing fewer in the Support Group and getting people into the ‘Work Related Activity Group’ (WRAG) regardless of its physical capacity to place huge numbers of sick people into work.

People really need to wake up to what lies ahead. ESA Work Capability Assessments have fallen from 353,000 in the May quarter of 2012 to just 53,600 up to February 2014. It’s nowhere near keeping pace with the influx of an average of 286,000 ESA claims which come in every quarter. The current low numbers are down to dramatically reduced numbers of ‘repeat’ assessments for claimants already on ESA and a virtual cessation of testing any of the 300,000 incapacity benefit claimants who await ‘conversion’ testing to see if they qualify for the replacement allowance.

There’s nothing to be surprised about with falling numbers of appeal, the truth is the DWP is hardly making anywhere the number of decisions it needs to be making – such massive reductions are obviously going to limit the number of disputes, you can’t appeal or request one of the DWP’s new ‘mandatory reconsiderations’ until an assessment has been completed because this is the evidence which the decision is based on, it’s no cause for the DWP to celebrate.

Mandatory reconsiderations are still showing 177,100 claimants appealing ESA decisions in the first year of the new scheme from October 2013 up to October 2014. The DWP promised this to be a solution and the basis for ‘getting more decisions right first time’, yet their first batch of statistics omits the results – it creates instant suspicion as to what they’re hiding.

Of the low number of decisions being made, the fact is that requests for mandatory reconsiderations account for a large proportion of claimants continuing to dispute the dreaded WCA results.

Undoubtedly more people are being put in the Support Group, it’s no improvement though.  It’s an obvious sign that the DWP are being forced into buying a bit of quiet time (highly convenient in the run up to the election) by reducing the prospect of more disputes and angry activists attracting more publicity over anguished assessments and placing people in groups where claimants won’t kick up a fuss. With so few being placed into work as a result of placements into the Work Related Activity Group, it would be foolish to cram more into an ailing programme, thus focusing its failure even further.

With the government’s big claim to success being ‘falling unemployment’, you hardly need a degree in statistics to work out why the last place the DWP want claimants to be is down at the Jobcentre signing on.

The current state of calm is a falsity, once the next election has been cleared it will be back to business with a return to previous numbers. Whilst the number of repeat and incapacity assessments will be lower, let’s not be forgetting that Maximus still need to clear a backlog of somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 outstanding assessments.

What is absolutely certain is that IDS’s Chancellor won’t be tolerating any further increases of £2 billion a year in maintaining claimants on Employment & Support Allowance. There is no way on this earth he can continue to allow expenditure to creep up whilst going into the forthcoming election on a premise that he’ll be making a further £12 billion savings on the welfare bill if voted in for another 5 year parliamentary term.

No amount of Maximus PR can alter the facts, under IDS the ESA reassessment programme has become a serious fiscal disaster and just like Atos, when it all goes pear shaped again the DWP will end up blaming their currently in-favour healthcare contractor Maximus.

Just you wait and see.

My wife & child are disabled, I care for them. Govt have made our lives a living hell.

No government should do this to citizens.

by Thomas Hemmingford

I have no idea why my wife and I ever bothered paying into the system. Which, in turn, means we wonder why we ever bothered working.

People buy into all the TV productions, media headlines and political nonsense about benefits. But the likes of newapaper stories, “Benefits Street” or Benefits Britain are not factually typical or realistic. They are far from representative, and always one-sided.

There is a great myth that has been spun by the government and media; the myth is that welfare benefits were too generous, too high and needed to be cut.

However, the reality is very different from this image that has skewed people’s perceptions of welfare. The truth is that welfare benefits were never too high. Far from it, they were in fact inadequate.

The truth is that pay levels have been and still are grossly insufficient. Combined with high prices and a high cost of living, it is no wonder most people feel ‘cheated’.

But welfare benefits were only set at a level to meet these costs and prices. Even then, they were only set at levels to barely meet those costs. The fact that low pay could not meet these costs was never the fault of people on welfare benefits; they have no impact on your pay level.

Blaming people on welfare was a tactic government used to cause divisions across the country; so while people are busy blaming those not working, they don’t focus on their own poor pay levels, rising prices or what the government are actually doing.

Rents have been a particular issue. David Cameron promised that cutting Housing Benefit would bring rents down. This was always, obviously, complete nonsense with no basis in fact. Rents have risen year on year.

Of course, expensive areas have special characteristics when it comes to, for example, property prices, rents and other associated costs living in such an area – with London being a more special case.

But the government has taken London as a model and, as a political mechanism, applied the ‘one fits all’ idea across the country.

Of course, I do not need to tell you that house prices and rents in London are not the same as those in, for example, York, Great Yarmouth, Chelmsford, Huddersfield, Nottingham, Southampton (etc etc).

In fact, rents differ greatly, and this is why setting the Local Housing Allowance (Housing Benefit) on the median had some logical sense. On the 50th percentile, people were still likely to need to top-up their rents, but at least it gave people options (if they could find a landlord who would accept Housing Benefit).

On the 30th percentile, in many areas across the UK, people will never be able to find a home. For example, in many parts of the UK, family homes begin well above the 50th percentile. It’s no surprise there is a housing crisis – and a growing rent debt crisis.

This distortion of the truth by this government is absolutely appalling. They portray a nation of lazy scroungers – when in fact unemployed people account for only 3% of welfare spending. And, of course, unemployed does not automatically equal ‘lazy’.

The reality is that, after pensions, people in work are a much bigger draw on welfare benefits.

That is largely down to pay being grossly insufficient. The State knows pay is too low – that’s why all the in-work benefits exist.

The truth is that the government has betrayed people – both in and out of work. By keeping your pay low (via in-work benefits  – yes, people get paid AND get welfare benefits!), you are being held back in progressing your life and your career – whilst your employer, directors and shareholders benefit from all your efforts.

We worked hard for years, and both of us had excellent incomes. I worked in Computer Science and then later in Software Development and management. My wife worked in finance. We had cars, a house (or should I say mortgage), holidays every year, and we didn’t want for anything.

One can argue that we worked for it and earned it, but the truth is that we had good fortune too. As much as people try to ‘make their own luck’, we all need the cards to be kind.

But now, I am full-time carer to my disabled wife. I also bring up our children (one of our children is also disabled). We have costs due to disability that are both high and unavoidable. But we have no way of raising or earning money in our situation.

Most people who have never experienced disability would be astounded and scared by the sheer extra costs. They can easily run to several hundred pounds extra each month. We don’t set these costs/prices no more than we asked to be afflicted with disabilities.

It is atrocious and shameful what this government are doing to disabled people. David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Iain Duncan Smith and others, such as Lord Freud, are not fit to be in power. Supporters of this government should be ashamed of themselves.

Both my grandfathers fought in World War 2. I’m sure they would be disgusted with the way this Govt, the media and many people in the UK view and treat vulnerable and disabled people. I’m sure they’d have searching questions about what they were fighting for.

My friend’s father worked all his life whilst also looking after his disabled wife, and bringing up his son. He paid into the system all his life. He worked hard all his life. And his reward? He died suddenly, shortly after taking early retirement. He never got to enjoy retirement.

His son, who is now himself unwell, is another who is being hit hard by the government’s welfare reforms. His son also worked for quite some years. People have worked hard and paid in, and the government are now not providing enough money, help and support.

What was the point of his working and paying in? Why bother?

Now, our fixed income does not even meet 70% of basic bills. These welfare reforms are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. They are causing anxiety, depression, illness, homelessness and increased child poverty. This cannot be acceptable. We saw the terrible effects of homelessness and child poverty in the late 80s/early 90s. It was terrible. It put tremendous strain on the NHS, which of course costs a lot more than welfare or the likes of housing benefit. It’s government irresponsibility that costs money and punishes rather than empowers people.

When my wife’s condition worsened, we both had to stop working. I too have a slight disability but nothing like my wife’s. We lived off our savings for a time, but ended up having to down-size our house, sell the cars, belongings etc. Eventually, after having to give up our smaller home, we had to rent. We exhausted our savings to live on, sold everything. We lost everything we had ever worked for. What was the point in our working?

And now – now we need something back from the system we paid into and trusted, the government deny us this. They have broken that trust. They have put us into personal debt that is spiralling and – if our fixed remains so insufficiently low – inescapable.

Had we not worked, we’d be no worse or better off today. So what was the point? There wasn’t one.

This isn’t about party politics. No decent human being with an iota of intelligence could support this government’s welfare reforms.

Thomas Hemmingford tweets @THemingford his blog is innervoice2011.wordpress.com

Bernadette Meaden: Illness and disability: time to accept reality

MacMillan Cancer Care recently reported that in 2015 there will be 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK, due to improvements in survival rates. MacMillan warned that this would place “huge pressure on the NHS”. What wasn’t mentioned was the pressure it could also place on the social security system.

Many of these 2.5 million people will be unable to work for varying lengths of time whilst they receive treatment. Some will have to give up work altogether. As MacMillan reports, “growing evidence shows that many cancer patients do not return to full health after gruelling treatments and many suffer from serious side effects of the disease.”

This, surely, is just one more reason why our current system of assessing eligibility for sickness or disability support is unfit for purpose. For cancer patients, as for most patients, their own doctors know if they are well enough to work. To send them to see a private contractor’s Healthcare Professional (who may perhaps be a physiotherapist) and have a medically unqualified DWP Decision Maker decide whether they should get support is not only inappropriate, it is adding more stress at a very difficult time.

As medicine progresses and more and more people survive illnesses that once would have killed them, we are necessarily going to have a larger number of people who are too ill to work, if not indefinitely, then at least for some periods in their life.

Yet instead of trusting them and their doctors, and providing support when it is requested, we now have an extremely expensive bureaucratic system which ‘processes’ their claims, and which can really only be justified if we assume that a significant proportion of claimants, and their own doctors, are wrong about their condition. It is a highly lucrative business for the companies involved, but has achieved little except to create distress and misery.

A friend of mine, a very positive person, worked despite illness, until her doctor told her to stop. She was placed on Incapacity Benefit, and lived a difficult but relatively stress-free life for several years. Her condition deteriorated gradually, but she retained a very positive outlook.

Then, she was caught up in the new system. A Work Capability Assessment reduced her to tears, and she was told to go to the Jobcentre to take part in Work Related Activity, to prepare for a return to work. This, as her organs began to fail.

She gave up on Social Security and relied on a tiny pension from her regrettably short career, and family. Her dialysis nurses recently persuaded her to apply for Personal Independence Payment, and the result was an unpleasant phone call from another private DWP contractor which left her tearful yet again. She asked me, “Why did they give me a transplant if they didn’t want to support me when it failed, as they knew it would at some stage?”

This is the crucial question. Why devote money and energy to keeping people alive if we are not prepared to give them enough support to enable them to eat? Why trust NHS doctors to keep people alive, but not trust them to decide if their patients are well enough to work? Why treat sick people who apply for support as potential fraudsters, when we know that fraud in the system is very small, and we have laws to deal with it? And why employ an army of healthcare professionals to process claims, when they could be working in the NHS helping to treat people?

It is difficult to see how the Work Capability Assessment is anything other than a very expensive mistake. People were not ‘written off’ on Incapacity Benefit, if they got well they were free to apply for a job, as many did, and as my friend would have loved to.

It was politically useful to portray Incapacity Benefit recipients as one amorphous mass of people who had all given up thoughts of ever working again, when the truth was that people moved on and off the benefit all the time, if they were lucky enough to get well.

Aneurin Bevan said: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.”

This is usually quoted in reference to the NHS, but it should equally apply to social security.

It is time to abolish the Work Capability Assessment and go back to trusting people and their doctors. And perhaps some of the money saved could go to improved support for sick and disabled people who are seeking employment.