Portsmouth council leader says benefits changes are not working

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Disabled people being wrongly told they are fit to work is a growing problem.

That’s the view of Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson.

Now he has written to Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, employment minister Esther McVey, and Vince Cable, business secretary, to voice his concerns the process is not saving money.

In the letter, he said: ‘I am writing to express the concerns of Portsmouth City Council regarding the assessment process used to determine whether people are “fit to work”, undertaken by Atos.

‘The council supports the principles that underpin the government’s welfare reform proposals.

‘But while the Atos work capability assessments are aimed at reducing costs to the public purse, we are concerned that the process is perversely driving up costs.’

Cllr Vernon-Jackson says some of the decisions made by Atos, the private company that conducts assessments on behalf of the DWP, are causing more and more people to seek help.

‘In Portsmouth, we are witnessing increased demand being driven into public services and the voluntary and community sector through people wrongly being declared fit for work.

‘This drives costs into the wider public purse, for example with incorrect assessment exacerbating issues such as mental illness; people having to access a costly appeals process, and through placing additional workload on GP practices.’

As The News has found, reported on page eight and nine, 7,790 people in the city are claiming Employment and Support Allowance and other incapacity benefits.

But demand on council services, as well as charities and voluntary organisations, has risen sharply in recent years.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Cosham saw a 232 percent increase in demand for help on benefits last year.

‘Proving I needed support was horrendous’

She may have looked fine on the outside, but inside she was going into panic mode.

The 33-year-old mum, who will be referred to as Samantha to protect her identity, has battled mental health problems for nearly two decades.

At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder with associated clinical depression.

When she was called to be reassessed for Employment and Support Allowance, the benefit paid to people whose disability affects their capacity to work, Samantha was found to be fit for employment.

Receiving no points in her Work Capability Assessment – the lowest score possible – meant she was deemed able to go into work.

Samantha, who lives in the Portsmouth area, describes the ‘horrendous’ experience of trying to appeal the decision and the year and a half it took her to get the decision overturned.

‘When you suffer with your mental health, you want to see a friendly face,’ she says.

‘Every time I went up there to the job centre, I had a different advisor. They told me that I looked well. I was going into panic mode inside but they could not see that.

‘One of them told me to put up with it because everyone has the same problems. It really upset me. There was no compassion whatsoever.’

Samantha has been receiving help from mental health services all of her adult life.

‘I think I was about 19 when I found out I had generalised anxiety disorder with associated clinical depression,’ she said. ‘I just was not feeling well and the depression had kicked in. I think I had it a long time before that and the doctor put me on medication.

‘After I left school, I did various jobs: commissioning work for charities, bar work, cleaning. Nothing ever lasted because of my condition.’

When she was reassessed for the benefit, it took a year and a half to successfully appeal Atos Healthcare’s report which stated she was fit for work.

‘It was absolutely horrendous,’ says Samantha. ‘They put me into the work-related activity group. I was very unaware of everything that was going on. I was so ill at that time.

‘Going to the job centre, they were very patronising, pretending to by my friend, and then when I got the report back, it was full of points basically saying that I did not need help.

‘It was all lies. It homed in on the things that were not even discussed. They sent me to a work-related activity group.

‘They were telling me that I would lose my benefits if I did not turn up at the job centre.’

Samantha describes the tribunal process as ‘mentally cruel’.

She says: ‘The judge was nice about it. The doctor cross-examined me and made me feel ashamed. I suffer with it every day. It’s awful they are putting people through this with mental health problems.’

Samantha lost her home before her case got before the tribunal because of a change in her circumstances. That’s when she went to Advice Portsmouth.

She says the service is the only reason she is still alive today.

‘I just think back to when I was properly poorly. If someone had to be put through that when they are coming out of mental hospital they would just go and kill themselves. I had thoughts about it.

‘It is only through the advice centre and my family that I am alive. I just can’t thank them enough, really. If they had not been there, I don’t know what I would have done. They protect us, the clients. They just know how it is. They support you every single step of the way.’

Ian Ward, an advisor for the advice centre who helped Samantha, says intervention in cases such as this helps clients get the financial support they are entitled to.

He says: ‘Samantha received a negative decision affecting their ESA entitlement earlier in the year.

‘She suffers from a severe and enduring long-term mental illness and accessed our service for intervention with housing and welfare benefits advice.

‘Advice Portsmouth frequently see clients, who have attended a Work Capability Assessment test and subsequently found fit for work.

‘We often advocate for the most vulnerable and detailed casework is needed to obtain medical evidence to underpin a appeal. In this situation, we were able to secure permanent rehousing for a client faced with homelessness, after losing their home through housing benefit cuts.

‘We also represented the client at appeal and they were placed into the support group for ESA, which reflects a more serious illness and inability to look for work.

‘Advice Portsmouth often enable clients to access the correct benefit entitlement through requesting intervention from our service.’

The coalition government has said it is committed to getting people who are fit for work into employment and away from the welfare state.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions told The News: ‘We are committed to helping people move from benefits and into work if they are capable, while giving unconditional support to those who need it.

‘A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence provided by the claimant.

‘Through a series of independent reviews and by working with medical experts and charities, we have considerably improved the Work Capability Assessment process since 2010. The percentage of people entitled to Employment and Support Allowance is now at its highest level with over half of people completing an assessment eligible for the benefit, but everyone has the right to appeal a decision.’

Atos Healthcare was unavailable to comment when contacted by The News.

MENTAL health charities are increasingly having to help clients try to keep receiving their Employment and Support Allowance, or go to tribunals to try to get their payments back.

According to the charity Mind, many people who are assessed do not feel their mental health and barriers into work are taken into account.

In a response to the government’s review into reassessment process, the charity said many are ‘struggling to cope’ if they are told to find a job.

Jenni Ransom, a support worker for Portsmouth Mind which is affiliated with the national Mind charity, said the theme of benefit changes affecting people with mental health problems is ‘common’.

‘It is a massive problem,’ she said. ‘It’s huge and really impacting on people a lot.

‘It is a common theme at all level of mental health, right from people who are in mental health services to people who are struggling with the stress of life.

‘I was in court with someone last week about it. The questions that people are asked at the initial interview panels are important and they only ask about a person’s physical health.

‘People with mental health issues can lift things, they can walk and sit down but what is going on in their heads is extremely traumatic and these issues are not discussed.

‘If I had not supported one of my clients, she would not have been able to go through with the appeal. For people without help, it is even worse.

‘When they go into the process, even though the doctors and lawyers are really nice, it is hard. These appeals are often overturned. If you look at the national statistics, that is a common story. It is an awful thing to go through.

‘It is not a court process but it is held in a court room. The person already struggling is left feeling like they are doing something wrong.’

Jenni said a new process called ‘mandatory reconsideration’, introduced in October, which means people who want to appeal against the findings must go on to Jobseeker’s Allowance while their case is relooked at, is having an affect already.

‘It is less money and when you go to Jobseeker’s Allowance you have to go to meetings and actually look for jobs,’ she said. ‘If you are depressed or anxious it is going to make it worse. Then you have the risk of not going and if you don’t go you don’t get your money. It is like a downward spiral.’

EMPLOYMENT and Support Allowance reassessments were rolled out across the UK in February 2011 and reached full scale by April of that year.

Anyone signing on for benefits on the grounds of incapacity and disability after October 2008 – then called Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, and Income Support – signed up for Employment and Support Allowance. People who were already receiving those benefits were then transferred over to ESA.

An independent report in 2007, written by Lord Freud, titled ‘Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work’, found the benefit was ‘a good example’ of how it could be decided whether a person was fit to work when ‘managed appropriately and sensitively’.

Since reassessments began more than two years ago, there have been four independent reviews of the Work Capability Assessments process.

Concerns have been raised during the process by various groups.

The assessment element is in place to help make a judgement on whether someone is fit enough to work.

Questions asked include how far the person can walk without getting breathless, tired, in pain or experience a lack of balance; how far they can reach and whether they can pick up various size cartons of liquids.

A decision is then made on whether that person should go into a work-related group activity, meaning they must attend interviews and take part in work-related activities, such as training or condition management programmes.

If the person is not deemed fit for work, they are put into a support group.

For those who are told they are fit for work, they will be put on Jobseeker’s Allowance and expected to find a job.

Since October, anyone wanting to appeal a decision must first have it looked at at a local level.

During that process, the person is transferred on to JSA, which is less money and is conditional on that person seeking work.

Sanctions for not complying with the work-related activity and JSA can lead to benefits being stopped.

POLITICAL representatives in the area also say they are seeing a rising number of people coming to them for help with their reassessment results.

Councillors and members of parliament have told The News they have had constituents asking for help with what they feel is a wrong decision.

But there is a broad agreement that those who can work, should.

Caroline Dinenage MP, who represents Gosport, said there have been some wrong decisions made.

‘I think any new system like this is always going to have some teething problems,’ she said. ‘We have had a number of people come to see me because they feel that the diagnosis given to them in these reports as been unfair.

‘We always take up the case on their behalf and contact Atos or the Department for Work and Pensions, whichever is appropriate.

‘We have seen quite a few people winning on their appeal. Quite a lot of the information that is needed is not being supplied on the outset, perhaps because doctors surgeries have not released the information that is needed. A lot of the time, we see people winning their appeal. We would say to people, please take as much information as you can to the initial meeting to avoid getting into the appeal system.

‘There have been some issues, as with any new system. There have also been some bad decisions.’

Mike Hancock, Portsmouth South MP, also says he has had people in desperate need of help. He urged anyone concerned by their assessment result to contact their MP.

Former employment minister and Mark Hoban who represents Fareham, said the welfare state needed reforming to reduce costs and help get people into work.

He said: ‘I think with the reassessments for people on ESA, it is important we give support to the right people.

‘Those who can’t work will get the financial support, but it is also right that people who are fit to work should be doing that.

‘What happened with the old system was we wrote people off for decades. This is not a medical diagnosis – it is looking at what can do and at their functional skills.’