Oppose attacks on the disability benefit

This year the National government will be implementing changes to the disability benefit based on a similar system being used in the UK.

The welfare reforms in 2008 in the UK brought in a work capability assessment. A healthcare company is contracted to do these assessments. This company is currently Atos and its performance in this regard has been heavily criticised by disabled people’s organisations, as well as individuals, MPs, the Commons Select Committee for Work and Pensions, and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

As the head of CCS Disability Action Aotearoa New Zealand says,

“We support the use of appropriate tests designed to find out what assistance and supports the person needs to obtain employment. However, we have grave concerns about UK-style assessments, especially when these are undertaken by contracted providers. Despite the rhetoric about focusing on people’s abilities, these tests have proven to be medical model based checklists, often administrated by people with little real knowledge of disability. The complex social and economic factors that govern people’s access to employment are deemed unimportant in these tests which are characterized by asking meaningless questions about the person’s ability to hold a half kilogram weight.”

Latest official Department of Work and Pensions figures say 38% of appeals against ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) decisions are successful. CAB advisers estimate the success rate at appeal, where someone receives specialist CAB advice and is ­represented, is 80%. In too many cases medicals are rushed, people aren’t listened to, information is recorded inaccurately or ignored and medical evidence from the doctors treating people isn’t taken into account.

Two of the major flaws with the work capability assessment are its lack of consideration of disabilities that fluctuate in severity over time and how it deals with mental illness.

A judicial review into the WCA begins tomorrows when two members of the Mental Health Resistance Network will argue that the process is discriminatory towards people with mental health conditions.

Mental Health Resistance Network, who are now on Facebook, explain the reasons for the case:

“The reason that the ESA process discriminates against people with mental health disabilities is that the process requires ESA applicants to self-report how their ability to work is affected by their disability. While this is challenging enough for many people with physical disabilities, it can be a distressing, and sometimes an impossible task for many people with mental health disabilities. This is because some people with mental health disabilities do not always have insight into their condition, and others may find it difficult to articulate the effect of their disability on their fitness to work for reasons of shame or otherwise. Furthermore some mental health disabilities are complex, fluctuating, and often hidden, and these are by their very nature difficult for Atos Health Care Professionals (who are often not doctors and in general have no expertise in mental health) to properly assess at a short face-to-face assessment. In addition, people with mental health disabilities are often particularly vulnerable to the stresses of the assessment process itself, and often cannot cope with marshalling medical evidence explaining their condition. This means that they face substantial disadvantage as a result of the way in which ESA claims are processed.”

These reforms are part of a process of minimising what the government pays to its residents.  Switching to this system would be moving towards the UK disability model (the extent to which an individual can overcome barriers) rather than the one we have here now (how society builds barriers for the disabled). Fraud is cited as a reason to do these assessments by some, but even a Ministry of Social Development document admits this: “the UK Government’s own estimate of Incapacity Benefit fraud is low compared to other benefits – less than 1 in 200 (cf. Social Market Foundation 2005). Given that increases are not the result of fraud; numbers will not fall by simply “clamping down” on claimants. There are no comparable estimates of the level of fraud within New Zealand”. We should be caring for all of our vulnerable, not making their lives harder.

We need to oppose a system that treats people as worthless if they can’t work, or if they require special consideration in how they can work.