About 6 weeks ago Danni got the dreaded Brown Envelope of Doom from the Department for Work and Pensions explaining that because she was on Income Support and this was being phased out in cases of disability she would be expected to claim Employment Support Allowance if she wished to continue to receive state benefits. We had been expecting this- the current Government had announced that everybody would be migrating over this year- so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the letter arrived. Not long after (within about a week or so) the claim form arrived from Atos Healthcare (I am loathe to call them by their full business name, they do not care about your health one bit), along with the usual instructions (when it comes to ESA) that the form must be filled in and sent off within 4 weeks unless you have a very good reason for it not to be completed in this time.
To get some perspective to the size of the challenge that this posed, when we were claiming Disability Living Allowance at the end of 2012 it took us three months to fill in the form for various reasons, and that was with the help of someone who knows how to fill these sorts of forms in. The DLA form asks questions that are relevant to the reasons you would be claiming and has relatively few trick questions, whereas the ESA form has several cases of trick questions (The one related to how far you can mobilise is the example that sticks out in my mind) and you also have much less room to explain the reasons behind any difficulties and the issues that they make you face. The ESA form seems to have been crafted exactly to trick people into giving answers that would lead to a reduction or removal of support, regardless of the actual level of need of the claimant.
So, we had the form and 4 weeks to get it filled in and sent in. A challenge for a severely ill person and someone with attention issues. And then a disaster: My legs decided they didn’t want to be legs and I spent a good week and a half in hospital. Danni spent 2 weeks in a care home and so was unable to help me with the form at all during that time. So that’s half the time gone straight away. Add the days that I was panicking over it and as such totally unable to do any work for that reason.
It ended up that we realistically managed about 3 or 4 days of actual work on the form due to the combined issues caused by my hospital visit and the anxiety caused by having to get it done in such a short period of time. The government offer absolutely no help whatsoever for the practicalities of filling this form in, which only adds to the stress of it. This form is meant to be filled in by the most vulnerable in society, who can, in some cases, be literally dying of whatever it is that has meant they need to claim ESA in the first place. And that isn’t even the end of it.
Once an ESA50 (the claim form) has been sent in a few things happen. First your healthcare professionals are usually asked about your condition. Any supporting evidence is checked and then, perhaps the most terrifying part of the entire process: The Work Capability Assessment. Claimants are generally expected to go to one of Atos’ assessment centres, which can be incredibly awkward to get to, if it is even possible. Once you arrive, there is no guarantee that you will be able to get to the assessment room if you use a wheelchair, as not all of them have lifts. And then the assessment begins. The assessor will be reading off a computer, asking you if you can perform a certain set of tasks that they claim are relevant to your ability to work. These tasks usually line up with what was in the claim form, and there is a great deal of emphasis put on the tickbox nature of it, with certain numbers of points being awarded if you are unable to perform certain tasks. If you get a certain number of points, you get put into certain groups on ESA. If you don’t, you get spat out and told to either get a job or claim JSA until you do.
Now, this wouldn’t be quite as bad as it is if they actually stuck to what the tasks said and assigned points properly. It would still be bad, but not as bad as the reality. The reality has seen people who should be completely exempt from assessments being dragged in for them, and people who should have automatic entitlement to the highest rate, with no assessment and no pressure put on the person to even prepare for work (such as terminal cancer patients) being told that they have scored 0 points and thus will receive no ESA at all. The reality of people with fluctuating conditions getting nothing because the assessor had no idea what a fluctuating condition actually means. The reality of thousands of people having their benefit entitlements removed because the Government made the regulations even more strict than they already were. The reality of people dying because of the stress being placed on their bodies by the process. The reality of veterans coming home injured from military action and being refused benefit because their injuries aren’t exactly what lines up with tickboxes. The reality of the appeals system that is in such disarray because of the sheer number of incorrect decisions that it is totally unable to cope. All these are happening, and despite the insistence of the Government they continue to happen to this day.
The rhetoric that comes out of the Government is that there is nothing to fear from the ESA system, that everything will be fine for those that need the help. The truth is that the rhetoric is just that and that the people who need the help most are often the ones that are having it taken away from them. This is why I have been afraid of the ESA changeover for months, and why I am petrified on behalf of Danni for what will happen over the next few months with regards to it. These words cannot do justice to the fear I have within me, knowing that the support that she needs could be ripped away from her by a computer and an assessor that is there simply to meet a target that the Government refuses to acknowledge the existence of, yet the same Government have already announced how many people are set to lose both ESA and the replacement for DLA, Personal Independence Payment, during the course of the changeovers between the old-style benefits and the newer ones. I am petrified, and if you know anyone that is sick or disabled, you should be too.