Anti-Benefit Cuts Glasgow Contact

February 6, 2011
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3rd National Day of Protest Against Benefit Cuts April 14th Glasgow

April 11, 2011
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G2 7AB


Anti-Benefit Cuts Glasgow is now called ‘The Crutch Collective’

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Anti-Benefit Cuts Activity This Week Glasgow

April 5, 2011
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G2 7AB

Followed at 3pm by group planning meeting for National Day of Protest Against Benefit Cuts on April 14th at:

The Free Hetherington

The Glasgow University Occupation

13 University Gardens

Just off University Avenue,

Glasgow University Campus

Rescheduled Public Meeting:

Sunday 10th April, 7pm

@ The Free Hetherington

Mental Illness, Discrimination, the Benefits System and Direct Action

The new benefits cuts and reforms proposed by the coalition government are expected to hit claimants with mental illness especially hard. With the medical assessment and the new benefits being phased in, many people with ‘Invisible Illnesses’’ will fail to qualify. This presentation and discussion will explore these pressing issues along with the wider context of discrimination and stigma that create barriers to employment and social exclusion. What can we do about cuts to disability benefits?


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March 20, 2011
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G2 7AB

Join in the ‘Hallelujah I’m A Bum’ chorus…


Followed at 3pm by:

Group organising meeting including a go round of problems with benefits, services etc and planning for the next National Day of Protest Against Benefit Cuts on April 14th.

The Free Hetherington

The Glasgow University Occupation

13 University Gardens

Just off University Avenue,

Glasgow University Campus

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Mental Illness, Discrimination and the Benefits System Tues. 22 Mar. 8pm. Glasgow

March 19, 2011
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Public Meeting

Mental Illness, Discrimination and the Benefits System

Tuesday 22nd March, 8pm, The Free Hetherington

The new benefits cuts and reforms proposed by the coalition government are expected to hit claimants with mental illness especially hard. With the medical assessment and the new benefits being phased in, many people with ‘Invisible Illnesses’’ will fail to qualify. This presentation and discussion will explore these pressing issues along with the wider context of discrimination and stigma that create barriers to employment and social exclusion.

The Free Hetherington
The Glasgow University Occupation
13 University Gardens
Just off University Avenue,
Glasgow University Campus

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The work capability assessment is a genuine source of anguish

March 19, 2011
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Disabled people would love to be healthy and working, yet the government’s new medical test is sapping our energy
  • Lucy Glennon
  • Around the country, letters are landing on the doormats of recipients of incapacity benefit. The benefit, which is for people who cannot work through illness or disability, is changing to employment and support allowance.

    All those who receive the benefit are going to be reassessed for it through a questionnaire and a work capability assessment, which has already been described as “a complete mess” by the man who helped to design it, Professor Paul Gregg. Those who are most severely and long-term disabled, such as the blind, are being tested first.

    Reports of assessments trialled so far are causing anguish to those who are also set to go through it, as tales of misunderstanding and inexperienced assessors who work for Atos (the company responsible for the new computerised test) are not reassuring those in most need of the benefit.

    The Benefits and Work web forum is full of stories of people who have had poor experiences with the new medical examination, where questions are skipped and assumptions are made, such as being capable of getting out of bed with no help, simply for being present at the assessment.

    The computer software used by Atos is simplistic. A person may be able to hold a pen or pencil for a while, but may have trouble writing after a few minutes, yet such intricacies and complexities of a condition are not taken into account.

    The medical assessment makes little consideration of pain and the limitations it causes, and also the fluctuations in a condition that can vary wildly from day to day.

    It is difficult enough coping with a disability and the difficulties it brings in all aspects of life, but to have to struggle though an examination that reminds you of everything you cannot do saps your energy and is really depressing.

    Disability Alliance questioned 900 disabled people about their views on the changes to welfare, and 9% of those who responded said they feared the cuts to benefits would make life not worth living. If an incorrect or unfair decision was made from the assessment, many people would be too afraid or stressed from the experience to complain or appeal.

    A few years ago, I was fortunate to have two weeks’ work experience at the Guardian as part of a short journalism course. In the two weeks there, I was unable to come in for two days because of being unable to walk, and I had to leave halfway through another day because of being unable to sit comfortably enough to work, even though I’d been given one of the most comfortable chairs in the office.

    On my last day, after a chat with a colleague reflecting on my short time there, I realised I probably would not be able to cope with such work again. This was a sad realisation, as it was great having somewhere to go, having tasks and deadlines, and the chats and camaraderie of those I worked with.

    That experience is not unique, and there are thousands of people who have had to stop working altogether. There is not one disabled person unable to work who would not love to be able, healthy and have the possibility of permanent employment.

    Having a job is not only essential for earning money, but is therapeutic in raising confidence, creating a social circle with colleagues and giving you a purpose in life. Not all workplaces would be accepting if an employee had unpredictable health that affected their attendance.

    Many employers are hesitant to keep people on who need to take strong pain medication to get by, or make adjustments or get special seating and equipment to aid those who need it.

    There is nothing tempting about being on benefits that makes any truly disabled person want to receive them, despite what some newspapers suggest when targeting benefit claimants in their whack-a-mole game of scapegoat finding. Although they claim to be shaming people who try to “work the system”, they blur the line between genuine claimants and the fraudsters.

    • This article was commissioned after being suggested by PaulBJ. If you have a subject you would like to see covered by Comment is free, please visit our You tell us page

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It’s the tests that deceive, not the people claiming benefits

March 19, 2011
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Mental illness fluctuates. A one-off assessment of fitness to work is not only inadequate, it’s making people’s conditions worse

  • Zoe Williams
  • The coalition came into government with a firm belief that an army of shirkers was bleeding the state dry with fake disabilities. That much has always been clear from Cameron’s rhetoric: the benefits system, he says, has created a benefits culture. The Tories want to end this culture once and for all; in the case of the disability living allowance, by reassessing claimants. The last government introduced the work capability assessment for new claimants; the difference now is that all claimants have to be assessed.

    In Burnley, the trial of the WCA has just ended. Its weaknesses are many and varied, but in a nutshell, the system is that you chuck as many people as you can into the deep end and whoever floats long enough to take you to tribunal, well, congratulations. Think of a 16th-century witchcraft trial, take away the transparency and public approval, and you have it about right.

    The focus so far has been on the absurdities of the physical disabilities that have been discounted by the WCA: claimants have to score 15 points to stay on the full allowance. A person with multiple sclerosis scored zero, despite a surgeon’s letter stating he was too ill to work. Someone who was registered blind was found to have “mild visual impairment”. Charities warn that the coalition’s whole welfare reform bill penalises cancer patients.

    But the assessment for those with mental illness is even more bafflingly inadequate. Atos, the company responsible for the assessments, does not require staff to have any training in or understanding of mental illness. There’s an anecdote about an assessor telling a claimant that because he wasn’t rocking or sitting in a corner, he obviously wasn’t unwell. Claimants are asked how they arrived at the appointment: if they managed to take public transport alone, and are presentably dressed, this counts strongly against them. Likewise, if they are articulate. So there’s no acknowledgement that mental illness fluctuates, and someone might be fine on one day, but incapacitated the next.

    Sharon McConville, who has been diagnosed at different times with major depressive disorder, bipolar affective disorder and schizoaffective disorder, is unusual in speaking openly about the WCA’s inadequacy, as it applies to her personally: “There is huge variability in my condition – on a given day I may be depressed, hypomanic, psychotic or relatively well – and I find it hard to see how a face-to-face meeting at one point in time can accurately determine the level of support which is necessary to help me function as well as possible from week to week, month to month.”

    At the same time, there’s no understanding of people whose illness has a high anxiety component, who might never even open their post, let alone be able to face an appointment. You’re damned if you do turn up, and damned if you don’t. There is no provision set for conditions in which the patient might have poor insight into his or her own illness. A survey by the mental health campaign Rethink of the people who have been reassessed so far showed that only 12% felt that the assessor had even understood their condition; 80% said the stress and anxiety had worsened their health. The WCA is so riven with faults that it’s hard to see what kind of mental illness would, under its terms, actually qualify someone for help.

    So, typically, this might result in the treatment meted out to Man A (he wishes to remain anonymous) who has bipolar disorder, and suffers severe depressive episodes that can last up to two months, several times a year. He scored zero on his Atos test last March and his invalidity benefit was stopped. As a result he became stressed, his symptoms worsened and he had frequent suicidal thoughts. He had to wait 11 months for his appeal, at which the judge said he had no case to answer, and he will now receive his backdated benefits. He said after his appeal: “I am relieved the decision has gone in my favour, but I am also very angry. The result of my appeal just goes to show how flawed the current system is – with no political opposition.” This last point is vital: it’s rare for someone with severe mental illness to want to be identified, let alone have the stomach for a public meeting, still less a campaign. Political opposition to the WCA needs to be much more muscular.

    But before you even consider the politics behind all this – whether removing benefits from anyone is a fair way to stimulate employment when there is a shortage of jobs – there’s a clear discrimination case to answer. The argument about whether or not mental illness counts as a “real illness” has been fought and won. To devise a test, therefore, that might (patchily) assess physical impairment but doesn’t, except in the crudest terms, address mental illness, is discriminatory.

    Furthermore, if you have arthritis and your benefits are cut, your life will get worse but your arthritis won’t, necessarily. If you have depression and you are treated outrageously by a system that was apparently designed to reject your legitimate claim, then your depression very probably will worsen. Tribunals may sort out the injustice suffered by individuals, but what this situation demands is a class action against the discrimination that underpins it.

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Welfare reform bill will punish disabled people and the poor

March 9, 2011
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  • The Guardian, Tuesday 8 March 2011
  • Article history
  • The welfare reform bill, to be given its second reading in the Commons tomorrow, disguises cuts and changes to a number of benefits that will punish disabled people. In particular, the bill will time-limit contribution-related employment support allowance to 365 days, so that a claimant becomes ineligible after a year if their spouse or partner works.

    The bill confirms that disability living allowance (DLA) will be replaced by the personal independence payment, which will use unfair assessment and conditions to disqualify 20% of the current DLA caseload. The inclusion of this change in the bill took place before the consultation on DLA reform was completed. The reasons for this reform are unclear, as reported by the social security advisory committee, with ministers denying that cuts are the motivation for change. Objectivity and independence of assessment are some of the reasons offered by the minister for disabled people; while there may be a case for objective assessment, we believe that evidence from GPs and specialists should be sufficient in many cases as it is at present. We are concerned that the reasons given by the minister suggest GPs and specialists cannot be trusted to provide medical evidence.

    Available evidence, including DWP research, suggests DLA is an efficient and well-regarded benefit, with the lowest rate of fraud in the benefits system. As such, any reforms should be undertaken with caution, and it is important that any evidence-gathering is relevant, truly independent and conducted by appropriately qualified professionals, and that proper weight is given to other evidence, for example from the claimant’s GP.

    For these reasons, we call for the reform of DLA, and other “anti-disability” provisions that will place extra pressure on social care and social services, to be removed from the welfare reform bill.

    Hywel Williams MP

    Jon Cruddas MP

    John McDonnell MP

    Jonathan Edwards MP

    Kate Green MP

    Glenda Jackson MP

    Martin Caton MP

    Elfyn Llwyd MP

    Linda Fabiani MSP

    Kenneth Gibson MSP

    Jamie Hepburn MSP

    Anne McLaughlin MSP

    Bill Kidd MSP

    Leanne Wood AM

    Bethan Jenkins AM

    Helen-Mary Jones AM

    Nerys Evans AM

    Dai Lloyd AM

    Lord Dafydd Wigley of Caernarfon

    Baroness Anna Healy of Primrose Hill

    Gavin Hayes, Compass (Director)

    Hilton Dawson, BASW, the College of Social Work (Chief Executive)

    Alison Garnham, Child Poverty Action Group (Chief Executive)

    Prof. Julie Allan (University of Stirling), Education

    Prof. Colin Barnes (University of Leeds), Disability Studies

    Prof. Peter Beresford (Brunel University), Social Policy

    Prof. Anne Borsay (Swansea University), Medical Humanities

    Prof. Roger Burrows (University of York), Sociology of Health and Illness

    Prof. John Carpenter (University of Bristol), Social Work

    Prof. Luke Clements (Cardiff University), Disability Rights Law

    Prof. Viviene Cree (University of Edinburgh), Social Work

    Prof. Graham Crow (University of Southampton), Sociology

    Dr. Graham Day (Bangor University), Social Science

    Prof. Ann Davis (University of Birmingham), Social Work

    Prof. Hartley Dean (LSE), Social Policy

    Prof. Mark Drakeford (Cardiff University), Social Policy

    Prof. Nick Ellison (University of Leeds, Sociology and Social Policy

    Dr Iain Ferguson (University of Stirling), Social Work

    Dr. Joanna Ferrie (University of Glasgow), Disability Research

    Dr. Margaret Flynn, Journal of Adult Protection (Editor)

    Prof. Barry Goldson (University of Liverpool), Charles Booth Chair of Social Science

    Prof. Nick Gould (University of Bath), Social Work

    Prof. Gordon Grant (Sheffield Hallam University), Health and Social Care

    Prof. Jennifer Harris (University of Dundee), Disability Research

    Dr, Laura Hemingway (University of Leeds), Disability and Housing

    Prof. Paul Higgs (UCL), Sociology of Ageing

    Prof. Kelley Johnson (University of Bristol), Disability Policy and Practice

    Prof. Michael Lavalette (Liverpool Hope University), Head of Social Work

    Professor the Baroness Ruth Lister of Burtersett, Social Policy

    Prof. Jane Millar (University of Bath), Social Policy

    Prof. Patrick McGuiness (University of Oxford), Modern Languages

    Dr. Janice McLaughlin (Newcastle University), Policy and Ethics

    Prof. Stuart Murray (University of Leeds), Contemporary Literature and Film

    Prof. Andrew Oswald (University of Warwick), Economics and Behavioural Sciences

    Dr. Kevin Paterson (University of Glasgow), Disability Research

    Prof. Chris Phillipson (Keele University), Applied Social Studies

    Dr. Susan Pickard (University of Liverpool), Sociology of Chronic Illness

    Prof. Mark Priestly (University of Leeds), Disability Policy

    Prof. Diane Richardson (Newcastle University), Social Policy

    Dr. Gwyneth Roberts (Bangor University), Social Policy

    Prof. Alan Roulstone (Northumbria University), Applied Social Sciences

    Prof. Karen Rowlingson (University of Birmingham), Social Policy

    Prof. Jonathan Rutherford (Middlesex University), Cultural Studies

    Dr. Sonali Shah (University of Leeds), Disability Studies

    Dr. Alison Sheldon (University of Leeds), Disability Studies

    Prof. Nick Spencer (University of Warwick), Child Health

    Prof. Paul Spicker (Robert Gordon University), Public Policy

    Prof. Bruce Stafford (University of Nottingham), Disability and Social Policy

    Prof. Kirsten Stalker (University of Strathclyde), Social Work

    Prof. Guy Standing (University of Bath), Economic Security

    Prof. John Swain (Northumbria University), Disability and Inclusion

    Prof. Allan Walker (University of Sheffield), Social Policy and Social Gerontology

    Prof. Nick Watson (University of Glasgow), Disability Research

    Dr. Rose Wiles (University of Southampton), Sociology of Chronic Illness

    Prof. Charlotte Williams (Keele University), Social Policy

    Prof. Fiona Williams OBE (University of Leeds), Social Policy

    Prof. John Williams (Aberystwyth University), Welfare Law

    Prof. Sue Wise (Lancaster University), Social Justice

    Prof. Alys Young (University of Manchester), Social Work Education and Research

    Peter Ede MA (Cantab), Solicitor

    Alan Woodall GP

    Shannon Murray, model and actress

    Liz Crow, Roaring Girl Productions

    Dave Lupton, cartoonist

    Anne Novis MBE, disability rights campaigner

    James Hourihan, Timian Training and Development (Director)

    Naomi Jacobs, campaigner and PhD student in disability studies

    Fiona Laird, theatre director and writer

    Mat Fraser, actor and comedian

    Claire Litt, freelance interior and exhibition designer

    Sue Marsh, campaigner on chronic illness

    Lisa Egan, Philippa Willitts, founders of theWhere’s the Benefit? blog

    Frances Kelly, Rosemary O’Neill, founders of CarerWatch

    Kaliya Franklin, Rhydian Fôn James, Lisa Ellwood, Melissa Smith, on behalf of The Broken of Britain

    •  The welfare reform bill has carried the application of the economic theory of moral hazard to such extremes in its exaggerated claims of welfare dependency that unemployment benefits could be reduced to an amount incapable of keeping body and soul together.

    The new universal credit will be made up of a standard allowance (SA), an amount for children, another for housing and one more for particular needs or circumstances. The bill does not attempt to explain how the level of the SA will be decided. There is no link to the escalating prices of food and other essential needs. The Centre for Research in Social Policy has calculated that some time in the next 10 years the weekly cost of a healthy diet will overtake the weekly amount paid in adult unemployment benefits.

    The caps on housing benefit and the local housing allowance will create debts that will have to be paid out of the money needed for a healthy diet.

    Rev Paul Nicolson

    Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

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Work capability assessment is assessed, and found lacking

March 9, 2011
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The eligibility test for the new employment support allowance is widely condemned to MPs at a pilot scheme meeting

  • Amelia Gentleman
  •, Monday 7 March 2011 20.43 GMT
  • Article history
  • burnley meeting for the work capability assessment pilot
    Those involved with the pilot scheme were largely critical of the new assessment process at a meeting in Burnley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    “I felt it was assumed that I was lying. It was more like a police officer cross-questioning a suspected offender than someone looking at my health and welfare and mental condition.”

    MPs on the work and pensions select committee were in Burnley on Monday listening to the views of benefit claimants who have been part of a pilot for a new test designed to filter those people able to work from those who are too sick or disabled to do so.

    If they expected positive accounts they will have been disappointed. Speaker after speaker at the public meeting at Burnley football club gave negative accounts of their experience of being tested for eligibility for the new employment support allowance, the replacement for incapacity benefit, which is to be introduced nationwide from the start of next month.

    About 50 people attended the highly charged, emotional meeting. Most did not introduce themselves by name but simply with a brief description of the nature of their medical condition, and their accounts provided MPs with a detailed picture of what it feels like to undergo the work capability assessment (WCA) – the new computer-led test.

    The test has been vigorously criticised by charities such as Citizens Advice and by a government-commissioned independent review, saying that the process is impersonal, and ill-equipped to gauge the seriousness of mental health conditions, or the nuances of complex medical problems.

    One by one, individuals outlined the difficulties they had experienced. “I just seemed to be a number. The health professional didn’t know what one of my conditions was,” one man said.

    “It was a complete farce,” a second man said. “They asked: How did you get here? How are you going to get home? Do you shop? Do you bathe yourself? But not how does it hurt? Where did it hurt? None of that. “I’ve got arthritis in my legs, my knees, my shoulders.”

    “My wife scored zero points,” another said. “The test was a total waste of time; it was all physically orientated, nothing about her mental state. They asked things like ‘Can you brush your teeth?’ How that relates to mental health issues is beyond me. It was overthrown at tribunal. I can only describe it as mental torture; she was a mental wreck after it.”

    Paul Hogarth, from the local Citizens Advice Bureau, said the system had been widely portrayed as a process of “rooting out the shirkers”, but argued that the test was not fit for purpose, frequently declaring people with serious health conditions fit for work. The advice centre had supported many people to tribunals, 80% of whom had seen the assessor’s decision overturned, he said.

    Among those who successfully appealed was Ean Williams, 45, who told MPs that he had originally been given zero points in his assessment, despite having multiple sclerosis, and providing a letter from a surgeon stating he was too ill to work.

    To qualify for the benefit, claimants need to be awarded 15 points.

    “I’m sure that some people do scam the system, but why were they targeting me? I have hard medical evidence saying I had MS,” he said.

    Kevin Nuttall, a welfare rights adviser working with Action for Blind People in Lancashire, said he had supported someone through a test which concluded that he had “mild visual impairment” and was fit for work. “He was in fact registered blind,” he said.

    Over the next three years 1.5 million people currently claiming incapacity benefit will undergo the work capability assessment, carried out by a medical and IT company, Atos. The new test is tougher than the old version, and the government expects to save £1bn over five years by encouraging people into work, or failing that on to a lower-paid benefit.

    Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire, asked whether it was not a good thing that people with mental health problems were being helped into work. “Isn’t it about changing attitudes? Trying to find out what are the capabilities of that person – and shouldn’t that person be able to use their talents?” he asked.

    There was loud disagreement from the hall. “But the work capability assessment isn’t like that. It’s hostile,” one man said. One woman described the frustration of trying to get in contact with the Atos headquarters to query her assessment result, stating she had dialled the number “about 125” times. “There’s a recorded voice saying, Sorry, all our advisers are busy. And the line goes dead.”

    Others said the large number of appeals meant a long wait for cases to be heard, and in the meantime they were allocated the lower rate of benefit, £65 a week, rather than £91. “I am waiting for a tribunal, but I’m told that it won’t be before June, because there are so many people waiting. I’m stuck on the £65 benefit until then,” a woman with ME said, and began to cry.

    The chair, Dame Anne Begg (Labour, Aberdeen South), said this was the first time in her nine years on the committee that MPs had ventured out and talked to real people. “We should do this kind of thing more,” she said.

    Afterwards she said she was concerned about the speed with which the reform was being pushed through: “Personally, I see there are serious problem with the WCA. My view is that either they should be slowing down the national rollout or speeding up the implementations of changes to the system.”

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March 8, 2011
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G2 7AB

Followed at 3pm by:

Group organising meeting including a go round of problems with benefits, services etc, other ways of promoting the public meeting and discouraging medical professionals from working for ATOS.

The Free Hetherington

The Glasgow University Occupation

13 University Gardens

Just off University Avenue,

Glasgow University Campus

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‘The medical was an absolute joke’

February 24, 2011
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  • Amelia Gentleman
  • Tony Elliott
    Tony Elliott: ‘I was thinking, “I’m a human being, me”‘. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    In the windy courtyard of a new glass-fronted office development, several dozen protesters, many in wheelchairs, spent an afternoon last month shouting angry chants against the government’s reform of disability benefits. “We can’t work! We can’t play! What do they want us to do? Die?”

    The protest was held in front of the London headquarters of the low-profile but powerful French-owned company Atos, responsible for a new and controversial computerised test used to judge whether benefit claimants are genuinely sick or merely skiving.

    A surprisingly large number of police officers were on hand, and swiftly erected barriers around the protesters. Inside, employees in suits huddled at the window, peering down at the commotion. Protesters waved banners in the shape of coffins, marked with the slogan “Atos doesn’t give a toss”. A man warned through his megaphone: “We are being kettled. Disabled people are being kettled.”

    Given the intensity of anger among disability charities towards the reforms, many more of these demonstrations are expected in next few months, and senior members of the government are known to be anxious about the reaction of these groups to the looming change.

    The automated Atos assessment is the focus of particular fury and alarm. Over the next three years, one and a half million people will have to undergo this new test. A complex computer program will help a team of “disability analysts” to rule on who is sufficiently fit for work.

    People who have had no contact with the benefits system are unlikely to have heard of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Anyone with disabilities or serious ill-health will probably already have a detailed knowledge of the test’s workings and its many alleged disturbing idiosyncrasies.

    Aside from the question of whether a computer-led assessment is the best way to analyse someone’s fitness, charities are uneasy with this particular test, describing it as a blunt and unsophisticated tool.

    Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously, people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. A revised, even more stringent version introduced this month means that blind and deaf people will no longer automatically receive sickness benefit, and are unlikely to qualify for extra help finding work.

    The test is central part to the reform of incapacity benefit, seen both by the government and disability campaigners as outdated and in need of major overhaul. From the end of this month, it will be launched nationwide and there is great nervousness about what will happen once people start being reassessed at a rate of 11,000 a week.

    To be found too unwell or incapacitated to work, individuals need to clock up 15 points during the 45-minute one-to-one assessment. If, for example, you can’t pick up a £1 coin with either hand you get 15 points. Cannot learn or understand how to complete a simple task, such as setting an alarm clock? Also 15 points. Strangers have difficulty understanding your speech? Take six points.

    Because of the way the questionnaire has been set, it is much harder to be classified as unfit for work under the new test than previously and, as a result, the reform is expected to save the government £1bn over five years. In pilots of the test, 30% fewer people have been found unfit for work and 70% fewer people have been found eligible for the full-rate unconditional support benefit. Already people have been told they don’t qualify for benefits in much greater numbers than anticipated in government projections.

    The test did not identify the array of problems that make life complicated for Matthew Hutchings, 36, and awarded him just six points, not enough to qualify for the benefit. Smiling and shy, he sits quietly as his parents Ray, a retired accountant, and Diane, a teacher, explain that he has had lifelong speech and language problems, is probably autistic, and has always had difficulties with grasping simple tasks.

    “People have problems understanding him, he has problems with his speech, with his understanding and with his confidence. But it is a hidden thing, until you know him well. He’s very vulnerable,” his mother says.

    When he was called for his disability test, his father accompanied him. “The assessment was farcical for someone like Matthew – it was all: Can you sit down? Can you stand up? Can you pick something up? He can do all those things, but that’s not what the problem is,” Ray says. “They asked if he could cook. I explained he couldn’t, but that he was able to heat something up in a microwave. In the report they said he could cook.”

    His father appealed immediately against the judgment and six months later the case went to appeal. The tribunal judge ruled that Matthew was not capable of work, and awarded him 15 points.

    The Daily Mail describes the new system as a “tough new test to weed out the workshy”; much media coverage of the revised test portrays claimants who are found fit for work as “scroungers” who have been “trying it on to get sickness benefit”. Disability charities argue that, on the contrary, the government has tweaked the parameters of the test so that many severely ill and disabled people simply no longer qualify.

    At the end of each session, the computer program generates a 25-page report summarising the person’s general state of health, and fitness for work. People with severe health problems who have been given zero points say that they have told their assessors what was wrong with them, and been met with a computer-says-no response.

    A man who has been registered blind since 2000 due to a hereditary degenerative sight condition was surprised to read his report’s conclusion that “the client’s level of disability would be expected to improve with time and appropriate treatment”. “I’m losing sight all the time. When I complained, I had a letter that told me ‘the information contained in the report is medically reasonable and appropriately justified,'” he says (he asked not to be named, to avoid complications with further claims). “It’s meaningless. I’ve had no apology.”

    This is a problem that has exploded on to the desks of advice centres, MPs and charities around the country since the test was introduced for all new claimants of the benefit in 2008.

    Some claimants say the tests are rushed and impersonal, carried out by staff who barely make eye contact because they are too busy inputting data into the computer. A government-ordered review acknowledges that the assessment has a lack of “empathy”, describing the whole process as “impersonal, mechanistic and lacking in clarity”, and recommended a string of changes. The Department for Work and Pensions promises that most of these changes will have been implemented by the time the retesting gets fully under way later this year, but charities remain unconvinced.

    For disabled people or people with serious illnesses the prospect of having their health reassessed is causing growing unease and anger. This anger is directed both against the Department for Work and Pensions, which is continuing the reform of Incapacity Benefit started by the last government, but also against Atos, which is being paid about £100m a year to carry out the tests.

    Tracey Oakley
    Tracey Oakley: ‘I want to work, but who’s going to employ me in this state?’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    The benefits system is notoriously complex, but to understand the growing alarm of disabled people, you need to take in a few key points.

    Since 2008, anyone claiming sickness or disability-related benefits for the first time has been required to take the Atos-administered Work Capability Assessment (WCA); from the end of this month, all existing incapacity benefit claimants will be reassessed using this test, as the old benefit is phased out and a new system, employment support allowance (ESA), is brought in.

    If they are awarded 15 points, they will be moved on to ESA, which has two levels – the support group, where claimants are judged to be too disabled or unwell to be expected to work, and the work-related activity group, where claimants are deemed to be capable of working, provided they are supported into employment.

    If they don’t score 15 points, they will be moved on to the regular jobseekers’ allowance. This is around £25 a week less than incapacity benefit, and will leave people with their income cut by just over a quarter. This lower benefit also lacks the immediate, intensive support for getting back to work that ESA is designed to provide.

    The new benefit is based on the principle of looking at what people are able to do, rather than concentrating on what they cannot do – a principle that disability campaigners mostly support. The theoretical goal is to help people who have some level of sickness or disability find appropriate work, rather writing them off as unfit in perpetuity.

    The problem lies partly in the peculiar outcomes of the Atos test. In Chesterfield, Matthew Hutchings’s MP, Toby Perkins (Labour), says this issue has occupied much of his time since he won his seat last May. “The evidence from people that I am seeing is that people that are clearly not fit for work are being identified as fit for work. The consequence of that is that poor people are £25 a week worse off.”

    Large numbers of people who have been through this test have been so amazed at being found fit to work that they have formally appealed. Tribunal judges are overturning around 40% of cases they see and this high level of success at appeal is interpreted by charities as proof that the original test is flawed.

    Some charities also argue that the government has failed to appreciate how few jobs are available for people with disabilities or health problems, and point out that if people with health problems are moved from incapacity benefit of around £91 a week to jobseeker’s allowance at £65 a week, but stand little chance of actually finding work, the net result is simply to impoverish them.

    Staff at the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres in Chesterfield are supporting 400 people who are waiting to go to tribunal to contest their test findings. They have already helped Tracey Oakley, 40, a mother of three who used to work in a hospital kitchen. Sitting at her kitchen table, on two cushions, a walking stick to hand, she explains that she has been off work with severe back problems since 2008. Back problems are often cited as a sick-note culture phenomenon, an easy excuse for staying away from work, but it is very clear that Oakley is suffering.

    She has had one operation on her back and is waiting for a second; in the meantime she is on high daily doses of morphine, diazepam and codeine. She is barely able to walk to the shops; her teenage children now do all the cooking because it is too painful for her to stand to prepare food.

    Her doctor does not think she is fit to work, but she scored zero points in her assessment. “She bent me every way my body wasn’t supposed to go. I was in tears by the end of it.” Later a tribunal judge took only a few minutes to overturn the original decision. She has recently been through a second WCA, and is awaiting the outcome.

    “When you get nought points, it makes you feel like you’re lying,” she says. “I’ve always worked, since I was 15. I want to work again but who’s going to employ me in this state? It’s very stressful.”

    The centres also supported a former mine worker who had heart disease following a heart attack, and had been told by his doctor to stop work, aged 59. He was awarded six points in his test, appealed against the finding, and was given enough extra points to qualify for the benefit. Five months later, he was called back for a new assessment, and complained of the frustration of having to go through the whole process again. He died of heart failure a day before the test appointment.

    His family believe that the stress contributed to his death, according to Colin Hampton, co-ordinator of thecentres. “The government gives the impression that if everyone got up off their sick bed there would be jobs for them, but that is a load of bollocks, as everyone knows,” he says. “This policy does not address the fact that there are no employers ready to take on people who have health-limiting problems. How many employers do you know who are willing to employ someone with a history of mental health problems?”

    Paul Hadfield
    Paul Hadfield: ‘They don’t mark down that every step is painful.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

    Nearby, Paul Hadfield, 56, is appealing the decision of his WCA a second time, less than a year after his first appeal was successful. A former forklift truck driver, he became ill with kidney cancer in 2007 and had a kidney removed. “Until then, I’d never had a day off in my life,” he says. After the operation he was diagnosed diabetic, developed heart disease and is still recovering. He has become so weak, his wife says, that he often has to climb upstairs on his hands and feet.

    He was given only nine points in his first WCA, but he went to tribunal, where the judge found him eligible for the higher level of benefit. Shortly after the tribunal he was called for another assessment, and this time was awarded zero points. He is waiting to appeal a second time.

    “The questions are so basic – ‘Can you walk?’ ‘Can you sit?’ ‘Can you stand?’ They don’t mark down that every step you take is painful.”

    Hadfield is furious at the wasted time and money involved in appealing twice against a ruling. “It must be costing the taxpayer an absolute fortune for people to sit there and listen to these cases,” he says.

    The charity is also helping Tony Elliott, 60, a former diamond driller for the construction industry, who has severe back problems as a result of his work. He sits on the edge of the sofa, his back rod-straight, tense, and in evident pain. His consultant at the pain unit he attends has diagnosed him with significant degenerative spinal disease and told him he is not fit to work.

    “The [WCA] medical was an absolute joke. The person doing the assessment had a computer in front of him with the questions on it. He never bothered to look at me when he was asking the questions, not one time. He was just going through on his computer with his mouse, knocking off the questions. I was thinking, ‘I’m a human being, me’,” he says.

    “I was given zero points.” He pours out the contents of a large yellow plastic box with morphine tablets, lyrica and other painkillers, setting out his daily dosage. He went to tribunal, where judges overturned the decision.

    As he outlined his welfare reform proposals last week, David Cameron said a “collective culture of responsibility” had been lost, which meant that people were going “off sick when they could work”. “We simply have to get to grips with the sicknote culture,” he said. But these Chesterfield residents do not fit the mould of irresponsible people, trying to fiddle the system.

    Former coal-mining areas such as Chesterfield are often highlighted as regions that illustrate the need for reform. This kind of area is said to have seen a sharp rise in claimants as the coal mines closed, as the Conservative government in the 1980s pushed people on to the benefit, to massage unemployment figures. This is an academic argument in an area where unemployment remains high.

    At the protest outside Atos’s headquarters last month, one young man, nervous and clearly not accustomed to addressing rallies, took the microphone to explain how his uncle, who had severe mental health problems, committed suicide after the test gave him zero points and found him fit to work.

    Dismayed to find his benefit claim rejected, he had appealed against the decision, and won at tribunal. But shortly after that decision, he was called in for another assessment, and for a second time scored zero points and was told he did not qualify for the benefit. He began appealing against the decision again, but a few days before another tribunal date was set, he hanged himself.

    His family did not want his name in the paper, but sent through a copy of the serious incident review carried out by the local jobcentre, which concluded: “We need to review the WCA and appeal process to take the needs of our vulnerable customers into account.”

    His sister acknowledges that it is hard to know precisely why someone kills themselves, but said she was clear, after reading all his correspondence, that he was finding the prolonged assessment and reassessment process profoundly stressful. The DWP would not comment on an individual case, but said that improvements to how the test handles people with mental health problems are under way.

    This is an extreme example of a frequent problem. “Failing the WCA can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s mental health, which is further compounded by the pressure of challenging unfavourable decisions at tribunal,” the Scottish Association for Mental Health says.

    The government knows that the new test has many problems, not least because a detailed independent report set out the numerous shortcomings of the system last November. Its author, Professor Malcolm Harrington, concluded that much needed to be done to make the assessment “fairer and more effective”.

    He warned that some conditions were “more difficult to assess than others. This appears to be the case with more subjective conditions such as mental health or other fluctuating conditions.”

    Harrington, like many disability charities, supports the underlying idea that work is good for the health, and his report quotes Voltaire’s Candide: “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” “All the evidence shows that the longer an individual is off sick, the less likely it is that they will return to work,” he writes.

    But he warned that the test needed to be radically improved, and called for advice from charities working in areas where the assessment is weakest – the National Autistic Society, Mind and Mencap – to propose improvements. Their recommendations will go to the government in April, but they expect it will be too late to get that aspect of the test changed in time for the national launch.

    A key recommendation concerns the amount of weight given to the test’s conclusions. An Atos official says the computer program: “serves as a guide only and the healthcare professionals are required to use their own clinical judgment to justify the medical opinion contained in the medical report.” Harrington has reminded jobcentre officials that they shouldn’t just rubberstamp the computer report, but make a rounded judgment using medical records. The government has agreed.

    Jane Alltimes, senior policy officer at Mencap, says recent revisions to the test were making it tougher still. “We believe that more people will fail and not be eligible,” she says. “But 65% of people with learning disabilities say they want to work. There are lots of reasons why people with learning disabilities don’t get jobs – there are issues of employer prejudice, of lack of support. It’s not for want of trying.”

    A Guardian reader, who was recovering from breast cancer, and has had long-term mental health issues, last year let me sit in on an earlier version of Atos’s health assessment. Although the point-scoring system is different, the new test is similar in structure.

    The assessor refused to allow the session to be recorded or for notes to be taken, but in summary the test consisted of him swiftly running through a set of questions: “How did you get here, by train, by bus? How do you spend your day? Do you watch TV? Do you listen to the radio? Do you go to the pub? Do you drink alcohol? Do you have pets? Do you have a social life? What time do you get up? Do you do housework? Do you follow the news? What floor do you live on? Do you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm? Are you able to cook? Can you go to the shops? Can you get yourself dressed?”

    Alongside these questions the applicant gave, in passing, details of the childhood sexual abuse that had triggered her depression. The questions were followed by a short physical test, lasting about four minutes, in which she was asked to lift her arms above her head and behind her back and to lie down and lift her legs.

    “It’s not meant to be stressful, but inevitably it is stressful,” she said afterwards. “I found the whole thing really humiliating. There was nothing there that they didn’t already have, from my doctor, my social worker, my consultant.”

    One aspect of the test people particularly dislike is the way assessors (60% of whom are nurses and 40% doctors) extract information sideways from claimants. “People are asked: ‘Do you watch EastEnders or Coronation Street?’ If they say yes, then that’s interpreted as meaning they can sit in a chair for 30 minutes, and that they can concentrate for 30 minutes, and that goes towards building up their profile,” Rebecca Rennison, a policy expert with Leonard Cheshire Disability, says.

    Assessors observe the claimants’ demeanour during the test. One report, explaining why a woman with mental health problems had been found ineligible for the benefit, states as justification that she “did not appear to be trembling . . . sweating . . . or make rocking movements”. The DWP manual states “rocking may indicate anxiety”.

    Harrington declined an interview, but has made his unease about the imminent rollout clear, and told the BBC recently: “The timing is far from perfect . . . I think the department and Atos will have quite a job on their hands.”

    Chris Grayling, the employment minister, says all the improvements recommended by Harrington will be in place and improvements will be added gradually. He is at pains to stress that the process is not primarily motivated by a desire to save money.

    “There is no letter from the Treasury saying your mission is to save £1bn. As a department we have no financial objectives for this process. This is not about saying: Can we squeeze a few more people into the fit-for-work group?”

    Stephen Timms, shadow employment secretary, agrees with the principle of reform (which was, after all, launched by his government), but is anxious about the speed with which it is being implemented. Professor Paul Gregg, an economist and welfare reform expert who was one of the architects of the ESA system, says he thought it was a mistake to continue until changes had been tested.

    The test is badly malfunctioning. The current assessment is a complete mess. We now need to trial the new proposed reformed system to prove that it works and that it avoids the serious stress and misclassification of people that we have already seen, before we start implementing it on a large and vulnerable population. This is not something to rush. You have to get it right.”

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