GPs say benefits tests causing ‘enormous suffering’

Gail Dixon and her daughter Brooklyne. Picture: Jane Barlow

Gail Dixon and her daughter Brooklyne. Picture: Jane Barlow

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SOME of the Capital’s most vulnerable residents are being subjected to “enormous avoidable suffering” as a result of fitness-to-work benefits tests, prominent city GPs have said.

The controversial assessments are carried out by private firm Atos on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to decide eligibility for Employment and 
Support Allowance (ESA).

One Leith doctor said five of his patients had made attempts on their own lives due to the stress of the workplace capability assessments, which can lead to claimants’ benefits being changed or stopped.

A city-based campaign group, Black Triangle, has described the tests as a “vicious attack on the fundamental human rights of disabled people”.

A letter from the group, which calls on the British Medical Association to do more to oppose the policy and attempts to draw GPs’ attention to little-known regulations which can be used to challenge rulings, has been signed by 26 doctors.

They include Dr Ian McKay, clinical director of the Edinburgh Community Health Partnership, city consultant psychiatrist Dr Donald MacIntyre, and GPs based in Sighthill, Muirhouse and the city centre.

Dr Stephen Carty, a Leith GP and medical advisor to Black Triangle, said that the assessments were creating a “major problem” for doctors and patients and claimed the current system discriminated against the sick and disabled to such an extent that it was “flawed beyond repair”.

He believes pressure created by the system contributed to five of his patients attempting suicide, while requests for help with appeals was creating a burden on doctors.

He said: “This could happen to anybody at any time in life and we are not providing any welfare net that’s safe.

“Until these assessments become a more responsible reflection of an ability to engage with employment they are discriminating against people who through no fault of their own have found 
themselves unwell.

“The idea that there’s a massive fraud occurring and a great number of people fit for work are claiming benefits is an absolute fallacy.”

Dr Carty said that he had provided evidence to help one patient with severe depression with his application for 
Disibility Living Allowance, which led to a guarantee that he would not need an assessment for that benefit for five years. However the information was not flagged up to Atos and he was told he would need an assessment for ESA.

He said: “This man was experiencing daily active suicidal ideation, and in my opinion if he was called in for an assessment there would be a substantial risk.

“He went for this assessment and went home. He took an overdose of heroin with the express intention to kill himself. As it turned out he woke up 28 hours later, but very upset he was not dead.

“I, as a GP, have no mechanism for reporting an adverse event like that to the DWP. The person at Atos would not have had access to any information I gave to the DWP, and they don’t know this person went home and tried to take his own life. I am one GP in a practice that serves 9000, this is not rare.”

Between October 2010 and August 2012, 5850 assessments were carried out in Edinburgh, with 1350 people deemed fit for work.

Dr John Budd, of the Edinburgh Access Practice with bases in Cowgate and Leith St, said he had also experienced issues with the system.

He said: “Our patients often have very complex problems. There does seem to be some recent improvements, but for many people with mental health issues and fluctuating conditions, the assessments do not accurately reflect capacity to work.

“We have had people who are long-term alcohol dependent with serious physical health problems who can barely get to appointments, but they’ve been deemed fit to work.

“One woman with urinary incontinence, with a borderline learning disability and mobility problems was deemed fit to work when she’d never worked in her life.”

Dr Budd said he also had serious concerns that the DWP was moving towards an online benefits system, which many of the most vulnerable were unable to navigate as their conditions meant they struggled to remember pin numbers.

A spokeswoman for the DWP said that decisions over fitness to work were taken following a thorough assessment and careful consideration of evidence.

She added: “GPs have said they do not want to be responsible for making decisions on peoples’ benefit entitlement, which is why we request the appropriate information from GPs to enable us to make those decisions.”

‘You’re left to feel worse than a scrounger’

Gail Dixon, pictured with daughter Brooklynne, nine, suffers with spina bifida, which has left her in constant pain and unable to stand or sit for long periods.

She also struggles with depression and anxiety, and is prone to regular panic attacks.

Now 42, she worked for the Scottish Legal Aid board and the Inland Revenue from the age of 15.

She was forced to give up work 12 years ago on the advice of her doctor, after her condition left her unable to cope.

But she was called in for an Atos assessment a little over a year ago, and deemed fit for work.

After appeals failed, it took months for the decision to be overturned.

Gail, of Leith, said the ordeal left her suicidal. She said: “You’re left to feel worse than a scrounger, like you’re not even something on the sole of their shoe. I was totally humiliated. Then they said I was fit for work, it was a horrible feeling.

“I would love to work, but I know I can’t. I have to lie down all the time. Having a disability isn’t nice anyway, then you are constantly judged.

“It was the worst thing I went through in my life.”

DOCTORS IN DARK OVER REGULATIONS

THE Work Capability Assessment test was introduced in 2008 to assess entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.

Atos, which is contracted to carry out the tests, is paid more than £110m per year.

Recent DWP figures show 39 per cent of assessments are the subject of appeal. Of those, 37 per cent

are successful.

Campaign group Black Triangle has highlighted employment and

support regulations, which a doctor can use to flag up risks to claimants, if they are found fit to work.

The group said: “Regrettably, it remains the case that only DWP and Atos staff are aware of these regulations, while GPs remain ignorant of their existence.”

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