Ella Abraham, Policy and Campaigns Officer
When news broke at the weekend about the tragic death of Stephen Smith who was wrongly deemed fit for work and repeatedly denied crucial benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), my first thought was, how much more tragedy needs to be reported before the DWP is finally persuaded to make urgent changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process?
Every day we at Z2K help people who are denied the benefits they are not only fully entitled to, but absolutely need to survive. We have seen survivors of torture literally screaming in pain during their tribunal because they are so distressed at the process. It is painful to witness.
One such person was a woman with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) scored 0 points on her Work Capability Assessment (WCA) because she ‘looked well’, ‘did not appear to be trembling’, ‘increased sweating was not apparent’, ‘did not make rocking movements’, and because she ‘behaved normally’. There is no medical evidence to suggest PTSD can be diagnosed by simply assessing a person’s facial expressions. She later won her appeal without question.
She is not unique in her traumatic experience; last month 30 out of 31 of our clients won their appeal at tribunal with our help. These successes are certainly no cause for celebration, because they reinforce how badly wrong the WCA gets it in the first place. Nationally, 75 percent of claimants win their appeals at tribunal. It is devastating that so many severely ill and disabled people unnecessarily endured a lengthy and cruel process that seems to be designed to stop people securing the money they are entitled to.
The WCA is in its 10th year and today will have its much contended and controversial policies debated in Westminster Hall. By its very nature, the WCA is designed to assess people on their ability to work and that a disability or illness should not be looked at as a barrier to that very ideology. As it stands, the system does not accept that there are circumstances in which people are sometimes simply unable to work and need the support and safety net they require to focus on getting well or at least managing their condition. One client received a letter suggesting he buy himself a wheelchair that could ‘be purchased at a cost that is inexpensive’ as the decision maker saw that this would be the solution to his return to work. This not only misses the point, but it is also dehumanising at best.
I challenge anyone to witness a tribunal appeal and not be moved. When I went to tribunal with Michael*, a 60-year-old man with a history of abuse, social isolation, the loss of support network, and well-documented mental health issues, he shook so uncontrollably I had to hold back my tears. He was so terrified he couldn’t understand a single word the judge said to him. We were in and out of tribunal in 10 minutes, winning his appeal. I met with Michael a couple of months later and he told me that because he has money to live on, he can now focus on trying to get better and that the benefits saved his life. But for Michael and so many others, it is only relief for now, as he will be reassessed in the not too near future and will likely have to endure the fundamentally flawed system again.
The death of Stephen Smith must not be forgotten. It should not be dismissed as a one off but rather the dangerous outcome of a system that is so broken, that people are dying. How much more evidence does the DWP need before it will start listening to campaigners and to the thousands of people who have experienced poverty as a result of this failed system? How many more people need to die? Amber Rudd, you have the power to change the system. These changes are not impossible to implement. Start by engaging with those who have experience the system and committing to help people to secure the benefits they are entitled to.
We recently launched our Scrap the Letters campaign, which calls for the end of the damaging and misleading letters the DWP are sending to GPs stating that their patients do not need a fit note anymore because they’ve been found fit for work. This letter is leaving severely ill and disabled claimants unable to obtain Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to which they are entitled pending appeal. The petition now has over 87,000 signatories, over 10 thousand people have written to their MPs and many MPs have openly supported the campaign by writing to Amber Rudd. As a first step, Amber Rudd, please stop these letters.
* To protect the identity of our clients, a false name has been used.