Tests introduced by the government two years ago in a bid to cut benefit fraud are not fit for purpose,say organisers of a campaign, based in Edinburgh, formed to fight them. Here, Jane Bradley talks to the campaign leaders, including a Leith GP who has many cases where he believes the assessments got it badly wrong
IT was a badge used by the SS guards to mark prisoners as “asocial” or “workshy” in Nazi concentration camps. Now the “black triangle” symbol has been adopted by a group of campaigners fighting the so-called “fit-to-work” assessments implemented by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in a bid to stamp out benefit fraud.
Set up by John McArdle and a group of like-minded Edinburgh campaigners 18 months ago, the Black Triangle Campaign was launched in memory of Edinburgh writer Paul Reekie, who took his own life – allegedly after having his benefits cut during a bout of serious depression. Reekie did not leave a suicide note, but he laid out two letters on his table, found after his death. One was notifying him that his housing benefit had been stopped. The other was informing him that his incapacity benefit had been stopped.
McArdle – who himself was forced to fight an appeal that he won to continue to retain his own benefits after a severe period of clinical depression – heard about the circumstances surrounding Reekie’s death and decided to take action. “Paul Reekie was an acquaintance, but when I heard about what had happened to him, I decided to do something about it,” says McArdle. “I set up the Black Triangle campaign. It began as a Facebook page, but it just snowballed from there. The frustration is that the issues haven’t really got any better.
“Disabled people are incredibly vulnerable and it is devastating when someone has their benefits cut, but it is incredibly difficult to change.” Under the official title, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the test was introduced by the DWP two years ago to assess whether people should be entitled to employment and support allowance.
It has since been the subject of much debate from both sides of the argument: some believe it is a much-needed crackdown on benefit cheats; others say the system used by the private company, Atos, which carries out the interviews, is not fit for purpose.
Also leading the campaign is Leith GP Dr Stephen Carty, who broke ranks with his profession to stand up for his patients when he discovered many were being told they were fit for work after passing a number of tests that did not involve consulting medical experts.
“I have grave concerns about the harm that is being done to patients who are being put through this Work Capability Assessment processes,” he says. “It is essentially a computer system used by Atos to assess patients. What is happening is that people are being seen by individuals with very little occupational health training – and they don’t request any meaningful information from a GP who has been treating the patient.”
He added: “I think there are a variety of reasons why there has been silence from the medical perspective on this issue. One is that if changes are brought in, they would have to act as gatekeepers for patients. We have been staggered by the harm and the lack of regard to safety that has been applied here through these assessments.”
Carty’s list of people deemed fit to work, whom he insists are not capable of normal employment, is almost endless. Right he lists four case studies, including one man who had his benefits axed after being told he had to go out to work shortly after being sectioned in a mental hospital.
The campaigners are now focusing on lobbying the government and organising demonstrations – the next is due to take place at Westminster later this month over the proposed Welfare Reform Bill, which would see a shake- up of how disability benefits are paid – and is trying to build a database of legal experts willing to donate their time to people trying to fight their corner.
A spokeswoman for Atos said the results of all Work Capability Assessment interviews are passed onto the DWP for a decision. The DWP says its system works. Reforms to the system, brought in after an independent review carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington, were welcomed by the government when the review was published in November.
“It is in everyone’s interest to get the WCA right, which is why has been greatly improved over the last two years,” said a DWP spokeswoman. “The system is far better than it was but we will continue to keep it under review and refine it further.
“We are committed to helping thousands of people move from benefits and back into work. Those found too sick or disabled to work won’t be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need.”