Tough tests for sickness benefit are “all about saving lives not saving money”, claims Employment Minister Chris Grayling.
He might try telling that to the family of one father who died after being told to get a job as his heart condition wasn’t “life-threatening”.
We constantly hear about the sicknote fakers who screw the system then get caught running a marathon or playing in their local Sunday football league.
But not about the tens of thousands of genuinely sick people who are turned down for the new Employment Support Allowance benefit but go on to appeal and win.
It’s not a handout – if you work you pay national insurance to qualify for this benefit should you ever be unlucky enough to need it.
George, from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, worked all his life, first as a miner and foundry worker, then as a communications engineer, until a heart attack in 2006 when he was 53.
After a brief stint working self-employed his doctor told him to stop and George applied for ESA.
It’s worth £91 to £97 a week but like everyone else George got £65 a week – the equivalent to Jobseeker’s Allowance – for three months while he waited for his “work capability assessment”.
These tests, carried out under a £100million a year contract by private firm Atos Origin, were introduced by the last government.
They’ve been finding up to two in three applicants are “fit to work” – but many appeal and 40% are successful.
In George’s 39-minute exam, the “disability analyst” noted that George had angina, heart disease and chest pain, even when resting.
But this wasn’t “uncontrollable or life-threatening” and George “should be able to walk at least 200 metres”.
Atos’s report went to the Department for Work and Pensions, where George’s heart problems were ignored and he got six sick “points”, as he could only stand up for less than half an hour due to pain.
Short of the 15 points needed to get ESA, George was put on Jobseeker’s Allowance and told to find work.
He appealed, waiting eight months for his case to go to an independent tribunal. There George got nine more points, as he could only walk 100 metres before stopping.
He was put on the “work related activity” group where he got the lower rate of benefit and special help finding a suitable job.
But months later George collapsed and died of a heart attack, the day before another Atos medical. His widow is convinced the stress of claiming killed him.
We’ve got no time for spongers who milk the system and no problem with medical tests – as long as they’re fair.
Professor Malcolm Harrington, of the University of Leeds, was asked to review the Atos tests by the Government last year.
He found they needed to be made “fairer and more effective”. Currently the system is “impersonal, mechanistic and lacking in clarity”.
Poor decisions were blamed on lack of time and common sense.
When the Royal Mail paid Atos to assess postman Garry Hollingworth they said he should be medically retired. But just weeks later, when they assessed again him for ESA, Atos gave him zero points and passed him fit for work.
Colin Hampton of the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre (above) says he’s had four identical cases.
He’s dealing with hundreds of appeals with a 70% success rate, including people with lung cancer, brain tumours, asbestosis, cerebral palsy and spina bifida.
But last month the local Tory council scrapped the centre’s £35,000 annual grant.
So back to Chris Grayling’s claim that it’s about saving lives, not money. Professor Paul Gregg, of the University of Bristol, worries it will do neither.
He designed the “work-related activity” programme for people sick enough to get the lower £91-a-week rate of ESA but who have a “potential capability to work”.
Prof Gregg insists they are “not job ready” but believes most could be employed within two years with the right support.
He’s worried that so many work capability assessments are getting it wrong – taking those people and pushing them onto the lower £65-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance and onto the slow appeals process.
“It is taking up a huge amount of time and cost,” he told us. “The appeal process is up to a year. People stay in limbo, not receiving the help they need.
“Professor Harrington is very clear that the current system is essentially not fit for purpose. If there was any justice everyone would be reassessed.
“My concern is that the very people who would benefit from an active programme of engagement are being pushed onto JSA or they are ending up on appeal for a year.
“It’s a huge loss of time and the total net effect could be negative not positive. We are slowing down the process of getting people on the right support.
“This has gone on for three years now. One million people have been assessed and has the total number of claims gone down? No. It’s a big missed opportunity.”