Viewers of last night'​s Panorama programme, Disabled or Faking it?, may have been shocked by the story of Stephen Hill, the man who died of a heart attack 39 days after he was declared fit to work by a government contractor and subsequently denied sickness benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But for those of us who have been voicing serious concerns about the government'​s changes to employment support allowance (ESA), the story was met with both exasperation and frustrating familiarity.

A parliamentary question found that 31 people have died in the three years to last October while appealing against decisions that they were able to work. Panorama also revealed that between January and August last year, on average 32 people died every week who the government had declared could be helped back into work in the medium term.

To receive ESA, the new incapacity benefit, the vast majority of claimants have to pass a working capability assessment (WCA) –​ a short medical test carried out by government contractor Atos Healthcare. The WCA is so consistently failing to recognise those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in uproar. The cost to the government alone is staggering. Appeals against incorrect WCA decisions are costing £​50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and increase staff by 30% to deal with the backlog. Appeals find in favour of the claimant in at least 30% of cases, according to the government'​s own statistics –​ although Neil Bateman, a welfare adviser featured on Panorama, believes this rises to a staggering 80-90% if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.

With such high costs to the taxpayer to manage the assessment and appeal process plus the health implications to those British citizens left abandoned by the government when they are most in need of help, the coalition must find a commonsense approach to the ESA.

Firstly, it needs to be open about the allegation that the government and/or Atos have been set targets to minimise the number of people that can be found incapable of work. The DWP and Atos Healthcare both gave firm rebuttals to this allegation by both Panorama and Dispatches, which also aired a programme last night looking into the same issue of sickness benefit. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told the BBC that "​there are no targets anywhere in the system"​, although the government refused to allow the broadcaster to see the full contract it holds with Atos.

But both programmes uncovered a system in which assessors would be put on "​targeted audit"​ if they were found to put too many people into the "​support group"​ of ESA, with Dispatches uncovering that only about 12-13% of people should be found unable to do any work at all. Steve Bick, the doctor working undercover in Atos for Dispatches, said that of the eight cases he dealt with before resigning, he was asked by Atos hierarchy to review his decision on four of them. As one assessor put it in Panorama, such a system "​creates a feeling there are indeed targets"​. If we are to believe the government'​s statement that targets are not set, then something is clearly going wrong between the instructions given to Atos by the DWP and the spirit with which they are implemented by assessors on the ground.

Full story in on the Guardian website


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