More than a third of people with degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis are having their benefits slashed because the Department for Work and Pensions deems they will recover enough to look for work.
Thousands of those with diseases that only worsen with time - and who have become too ill to work - are being denied full Employment Support Allowance. Instead they are assessed as suitable for work-related activity which is designed for people likely to recover to the point where they can seek employment.
People in The Work-Related Activity Group receive less money and the threat of sanctions if they do not attend regular sessions. Many also have this benefit removed after a year as an added “incentive” to find employment.
Steve Ford, Chief Executive at Parkinson’s UK, said: “These latest figures are an utter disgrace and serve to underline just how little the Government cares for those with progressive conditions like Parkinson’s. To set up a system which tells people who’ve had to give up work because of a debilitating, progressive condition that they’ll recover, is humiliating and nothing short of a farce.
“These nonsensical decisions are a prime example of how benefits assessors lack even the most basic levels of understanding of the conditions they are looking at.”
When people with illnesses and disabilities are assessed for ESA they are either paid full support, told they are fit to work or, if they are deemed likely to recover, put into a third Work-Related Activity Group to apply for jobs and prepare for the workplace.
Almost 8,000 people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Parkinson’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis have been put on this third, lesser benefit. Of these, 5,000 were put into the category despite assessors explicitly recognising on reports that their prospect of working is “unlikely in the longer term”.
The figures were released by the Government following a Freedom of Information request from a coalition of charities working with people with degenerative and progressive conditions.
Experts say the new data highlights just how poorly those living with progressive conditions are understood by benefits assessors. Atos healthcare has come under staunch criticism for the way it conducts the assessments and has pulled out early of a DWP contract to provide the service.
Over the last five years seven out of 10 new claimants with a progressive condition have been reassessed two or more times on the same claim, which health experts say causes unnecessary stress and anxiety for people who are already unwell.
Mr Ford said: “There can be no more excuses. Those who are severely unwell should not be subject to the ongoing indignity of repeated assessments. The Government must let common sense prevail and ensure that anyone living with a condition that can only get worse is automatically placed in the Support Group, and given the assistance they desperately need.”
The five charities behind the investigation - The MS Society, Parkinson’s UK, Motor Neurone Disease Association, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society and The Cystic Fibrosis Trust - are calling for people deemed unlikely to return to work in the longer term to be automatically placed in the support group.
Shadow Minister for Disabled People Kate Green said: “This worrying report suggests too many sick and disabled people aren’t being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve under the Tories. Labour has called for fundamental reform of Work Capability Assessment which isn’t working for thousands of sick and disabled people. We will look carefully at how the system of assessments works for people with degenerative conditions and ensure it treats them fairly.”
Between October 2008 and September last year, 7,800 people with degenerative conditions were put into the work-related activity group. Of these, 3,000 had multiple sclerosis, 800 had Parkinson’s, 3,800 had rheumatoid arthritis, 100 had motor neurone disease and 100 had cystic fibrosis.
Ailsa Bosworth, chief executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, said: “To continue to regularly reassess claimants with progressive conditions, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, is absurd and unnecessary. We know that most people with Rheumatoid Arthritis want to work for as long as they possibly can and will only claim ESA as a last resort.”
An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “Our healthcare professionals are trained in the assessment of chronic and progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s and understand that, sadly, some people’s conditions will only get worse over time. In line with Employment and Support Allowance policy we are required to assess an individual’s level of function at the present time, rather than what may happen in the future.”
A DWP spokesman said: “It’s not fair to write someone off as unable to work if they are at the early stages of a progressive condition - and many people welcome support to prepare for work if they feel able to. If the effects of someone’s condition are considered severe enough based on their application and evidence, they will not be required to attend a face-to-face assessment. Our reforms support people into work where they are able, instead of writing them off.”
Chris Haigh, 57, from Southport, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005. His wife Karen, 54, says he was traumatised when he was told to look for work.
“We’d filled out a few forms and we were waiting for Chris to be called for a medical exam. But instead only two weeks after sending the forms off we got a call from DWP to say that Chris would be put in the Work Related Activity Group. I could physically see his whole body slump as the call went on. We were told his current benefit was going to stop in November and he would be reporting to the job centre to apply for work. How can you make a judgement about something that serious without seeing someone?
“Chris stopped working at the end of 2005 having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s earlier in the year. He had been self-employed repairing washing machines and tumble driers and had noticed the symptoms 18 months before he was diagnosed. The loss of dexterity made it impossible. I’ve watched his condition progress. He has mobility problems and can’t walk far and he suffers from a tremor internally as well as externally which makes him exhausted. He also has stiffness which means he sometimes can’t move at all and he’s on an awful lot of medication.”
“The person at Atos who did the assessment was a nurse, not even a doctor, and she claimed on the form to have met him before but she never had. We contacted our local MP and within 48 hours of him contacting DWP the decision was overturned. Someone from DWP even called to apologise for the two weeks he waited he was very unwell because anxiety and stress exacerbates the condition.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies