BRITAIN in the 21st century is a welfare state and has been for a long time, arguably because a civilised country is not supposed to tolerate a situation in which the poor and vulnerable cannot get the help they need.
In the past it has always come down to basic humanity; watching someone suffering, in pain and unable to help themselves is something that no reasonable human being wants to see. So they delve into their pockets, pay their taxes and make the help happen.
Perhaps over the years this has sometimes been exploited. Everyone will be familiar with cases of the proven shirkers who have conned and creamed what they could from the state.
The difficulty faced by the Government is, in a time when money is tight, a fair system must be in place which does not offer money to those who do not need it, yet helps and supports those who do.
The challenge in striking this balance seems to have been revealed in the latest benefits furore to emerge around the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which replaced Incapacity Benefit and incapacity related Income Support for new claims from October 2008.
With the introduction of the ESA came a new assessment known as the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), delivered by contractors for the Department for Work and Pensions, ATOS Healthcare.
A recent report, published last month, hit the headlines when it demonstrated that only seven per cent of the people who were assessed between October 2008 and November were deemed in need of full support.
A further 17 per cent were seen to be capable of some work, but in need of some support, while 39 per cent were assessed as fit to work and 36 per cent of claims were closed before the end of assessment.
Welfare experts at both the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and the Community Law Service in Northampton are currently seeing huge increases in their ESA caseloads, with the main problem being the sheer number of claimants deemed fit for work through the WCA, but who feel they cannot work.
For these people, an appeal is often the only course of action.
Susie Lickman, a specialist case worker in welfare benefits at the Community Law Service (Northampton and County) said that in the last year the organisation had assisted with 64 ESA cases at appeal tribunal. Experts there also provided a “casework service” to 460 clients with ESA problems.
Meanwhile, at Northampton’s CAB (which is involved in the Fair Welfare campaign), ESA enquiries have soared from 200 in the first quarter of 2009 to 585 in the first quarter of this year; 8.4 per cent of the organisation’s total enquiries.
Susie said: “What has happened is we have got a lot of people who fail their work WCA – the national figure is 37 per cent – and a lot of people appeal the decision. We are helping the people who appeal. Nationally 40 per cent of these appeals are successful.(The Community Law Service success rate is 80 per cent).
“It has been a massive increase. With the incapacity benefit we always had people who had had assessments and did not agree with the decision but now we not only have a lot more people getting negative decisions but also a lot more people are reassessed.
“There are a few particular problems, firstly it is quite technical in how it is worded, people are finding the assessment processes difficult. They have to fill in a questionnaire about what activities they might find difficult and have a medical assessment. People don’t have a lot of information about that and it is quite difficult for many people, particularly with mental health difficulties. “We are finding a lot of people are getting upset with the process. They don’t understand why their doctor has signed them off sick and don’t see the difference between their doctor making an assessment and the DWP making one on specific criteria.”
She explained: “Claimants are coming to us saying that essentially when they go to the medical assessment the person carrying out the assessment doesn’t want to see additional history, at that stage they want to make the assessment from a standing start. People have been upset that they don’t feel they are being listened to and their doctor’s information isn’t being taken into account.”
She added: “There are two main difficulties. With people with mental health problems it is quite difficult to establish that they meet the criteria and it has been difficult to assess people with chronic fatigue types conditions who can perform a function but where it is difficult to see if they could do this with repeated regularity.”
The Harrington Review, published in November 2010, reviewed the assessment process and made some changes, for example by improving the way mental health conditions were assessed but, according to the DWP, the full impact of these changes will not be seen for another six months.
Speaking at the time of the review, employment minister Chris Grayling said: “It’s unacceptable that so many people have been written off to a lifetime on benefits. We know that many of these people could and do want to work, but the current system doesn’t allow them to.
He added: “The WCA should be seen as a possible first step towards returning to work. Those who are found fit for work will get the help and support they need to get a job. Those found too sick or disabled to work won’t be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need to lead fulfilling lives.”
The Community Law Service’s appointment line number is Northampton 636112.. Drop-in sessions are also held at the St Giles Street Office on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10am and midday and on Wednesdays between 1pm and 3pm.
EMMA was an active, fit, university graduate when, in 2008, she suffered an accident while skiing.
The 26-year-old, who lives in Northamptonshire and did not want her real name printed in the Chron, suffered a twisted knee which caused pain for several months.
After six months she underwent surgery but the pain worsened and she was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a condition which leaves the sufferer in constant pain due to damage to the nervous system.
She feels the condition has left her completely unable to work because of the continuous pain she suffers.
Yet her assessment for ESA concluded that she was fit to work and she is now facing the prospect of a potentially lengthy appeal procedure.
She said: “I have had a lot of appointments with pain specialists and have been taking a lot of medications, none of which have helped and some of which have caused complications like stomach problems.
“It was the middle of 2009 when I applied for the ESA. There was at least a year before I applied as I thought I would get better and I have never claimed benefits before, I have always worked. I was at home with my parents anyway, but obviously didn’t have any income.
“I think at first I just had to fill in a form and then the assessments came up. I think they see if you can sit or stand and it is as though you are a robot. I can do certain things but I’m in pain while doing them. They say ‘can you stand?’ I can, but not for long. I can physically do something but it seems that they don’t take into account your pain at all with the assessments.”
She continued: “The papers are saying that so many more people are able to work but they are not, it is just they are targeting the most vulnerable people who aren’t able to do anything about it.”
She added: “People are going to think ‘these people are just scroungers’ but it isn’t the case. This test is to scrape back as much money as possible, these people aren’t fit and I don’t understand what these people are supposed to do. Where are they going to get a job?’
“It is so depressing. It is horrible to have to be off work, not having your independence, an income and not feeling like you have a life. A small amount of people would want to be on them but it is not fun being on benefits.”
“The worst thing is the mental pressure it causes when you are unable to work. You have to come to terms with the fact that you are not able to do what you used to do, only to be told you are fit, but for the reality to be that no one will employ you because you aren’t fit,” said Clive, reflecting on his struggle to claim ESA.
The 58-year-old from Northampton, who did not want his real name revealed, suffers from diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, a condition in which damage is caused to the nervous system transmitting information from the brain to the spinal cord.
He is also being investigated for possible fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis.
In effect, Clive feels that the severe pain he experiences on a daily basis would make it impossible to focus at work.
He said: “I had to give up work, my boss didn’t want me to work there any more, he said I just couldn’t do what he wanted me to do.”
Although Clive has now been granted ESA on appeal, after an initial rejection, the process took about a year to complete, during which time he was in receipt of a lesser rate from the Government.
He said: “I’m happy now I have got this but it has taken so much out of me.”
He continued: “I have had to borrow money from my mother, I probably borrowed about £10,000 or more. I have had to struggle every day to cope, it has caused arguments and a lot of hurt.”
As a trained teaching assistant, this is a line of work Hannah Buckseall always wanted to pursue.
But last year the mother-of-four’s health started to fail, she began to suffer severe pains in joints throughout her body and she was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
The 32-year-old explained: “I have no energy most days, I suffer from migraines and pains in every joint, it is an awful condition. I also suffer from depression and a bowel and bladder problems.”
It was last autumn when Hannah started the process to claim ESA, but the capability assessment concluded that she was fit to work.
She recalled: “They said I was well enough for work, even though my consultant and GP said I can’t work. I wouldn’t consider their assessment as thorough compared to my consultant’s assessment. I was assessed on being sound of mind, which I was, but also that I could reach my toes. They didn’t realise that I can reach my toes, but it is so painful to do it.
“I’m fighting my case at the moment. I can’t afford to eat properly and I can’t afford to use the amount of gas I need to keep my temperature right. It has been an awful struggle. I would love to work but because of my situation I feel it is impossible.”