Saturday 18 March 2023

Reflections on the Work Capability Assessment when its days may be numbered

I was recently interviewed by the New Statesman about government proposals to scrap the Work Capability Assessment. Given the suffering the latter has caused, you might think this is a cause for celebration. But the new plans will simply hand job centre work coaches the power to "determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in". And they will doubtless be armed with the power to dish out sanctions for anything they regard as non-compliance. Given that sanctions are currently at an all time high, the prospect is frightening.

I didn't know the details at the time of the interview


Tell me about when and why you first applied for Employment and Support Allowance?

 In the summer of 2010 I suffered a brain haemorrhage and subsequent stroke in the operation to deal with it. When I left hospital after a few weeks, I applied for ESA but it took some time to go through because the form (and the doctor’s certificate) was lost twice. I couldn’t write at the time so I had to get a friend to fill it out on my behalf – three times.

 How long into claiming that benefit were you asked to do a Work Capability Assessment?

 It was probably the standard time, about 3 months, maybe a bit longer. The assessment took place in December 2010.

 Can you describe your memories of the assessment, and how you were physically and mentally at the time?

 The effects of the stroke were still very real. My sense of balance was shot through (balance is one of those things you don’t appreciate until it’s damaged), my speech was slurred and got worse the more I spoke, I became breathless after the slightest physical exertion and tired very easily. In short, I wasn’t in a fit state to do any job I’m aware of.

The assessment was quite brief. I was invited into an office and was asked various questions about my daily routine and what “tasks” I was able to perform. I remember when I left and walked down the corridor, I glanced back and could see “medical professional” observing me.

A few days’ later I received a letter saying I had been awarded zero points. I had been deemed “fit to work” and was not eligible for Employment and Support Allowance. I could apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance if I wished.

(I appealed and over a year later a tribunal awarded me 18 points which classed me as not fit for work and put me in in the Work Related Activity Group. However by that stage, I was working as a part-time (very part-time) freelance journalist.)

How did it make you feel?

 Angry. There was no genuine attempt to find out what was wrong with me, nor what I could do – not just once or twice but multiple times, in line with what jobs in the real world actually require you to do. It felt like a tick box exercise aimed at finding any excuse for culling you from the benefit rolls.  I think I could have dropped down dead and no-one would have been bothered.

 A few years’ ago, an academic described the WCA as reminiscent of the First World War medical tribunals that returned shell shocked and wounded soldiers to the front. That seems an apt analogy.

 With the news that the government may be scrapping WCAs, what are your reflections on the process and what it tells you about how the government treats people and its attitudes to the welfare system?

 I don’t know what they're proposing but I’m very sceptical. Sanctions doled out to the benefit claimants are currently going through the roof so I don’t see many signs of a change of heart. What any humane benefit system for sick and disabled people has to take on board is the deep fear that the Work Capability Assessment generated – that you’d be left destitute and unable to actually do a job to cope with the fact that your income had been taken away. And many were put in precisely that position (not just people found fit for work but those in the Work Related Activity Group, thousands of whom were also sanctioned).

What sick and disabled people need is the peace of mind that comes with security of income. I remember a person I knew who attended Headway’s Life with Brain Injury group with me (Headway are a brain injury charity). He had no peripheral vision and was certified blind (he got a Guide Dog when I was there) and wanted to take up a volunteering opportunity. He was reluctant to do so, however, because he feared the DWP would say ‘aha, this is proof you can do things’ and take his benefit away. This was a sign of a sick (no pun intended) system and makes a mockery of the claim at the time that pre-WCA system just abandoned people to live isolated lives on benefits.

The only politician I’m aware of who really understood the fear induced by the callousness of the WCA was Jeremy Corbyn. The faction who now control the Labour party certainly don’t. They created the WCA in the first place. Ironically, the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos promised to scrap the Work Capability Assessment, which is what we’re told will happen now, but I doubt that will be mentioned much in the ensuing debate.




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