Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Joining the Daily Mail : a dubious benefit

It's rather sad to see Gerri Peev, who I remember as being a fine jounalist on the Scotsman, put her name to a tediously predictable 'benefit scrounger' bashing article for the Daily Mail. There's actually nothing new in the revelation that the majority of initial applicants for the new Employment and Support Allowance are failing to get it, but Gerri - loyal to her new masters' cause - dutifully pretends to be dumbfounded.

"Out of about 840,000 who tried to obtain the £95-a-week Employment and Support Allowance, 640,000 were told they were fit for work, or withdrew their applications before they took the tests – suggesting they were ‘trying it on’.

Incredibly, 7,100 tried to claim because they had sexually transmitted diseases and nearly 10,000 because they were too fat. Only 178,000 – one in four – were given the payment after convincing doctors they were actually unable to work.

The disclosure by the Department for Work and Pensions raises fresh questions over how many of the 2.6million people on the existing incapacity benefit are really incapable of being employed."

Well, that's one side of the equation. But what about the other "fresh questions" that it poses, but which the Mail seem unaccountably incurious about - for starters, what if a lot of the unsuccessful applicants were not in fact "trying it on"? What if (as anecdotal evidence strongly suggests) the assessing contractor Atos have instead been wrongly certifying large numbers of people as fit to work as a direct result of the incentives built into the system for them to get the overall number of claimants down?

A week or two back, Jon Snow raised with Iain Duncan Smith the case of a woman in the middle of treatment for breast cancer, who was repeatedly found to be fit for work before common sense finally prevailed at an appeal - but by which time she'd been put through an unimaginable amount of completely unnecessary additional stress. To his credit, IDS made clear that he'd now put procedures in place to ensure that this could never again happen to cancer patients. But in a sense that rather neatly left unanswered the real thrust of Snow's question, which was about the culture at Atos, one that is clearly geared towards finding reasons to reject claims, rather than towards making the most accurate and objective assessment possible of each individual's capability to work. Until that culture is addressed, neither the Daily Mail nor the government is in any position to credibly draw convenient inferences from the current high rejection rate.


  1. Tougher means tougher, which means the line is moving. There will be a battle to send it back towards greater leniency, and cases will spill out such as the lady with cancer, where the toughness has gone too far. Government programmes are likely to be ham-fisted rather than precision instrumentation, as they ever were. At least she won on appeal, and there is still an element of humanity and common sense in the response to this case.

    I can remembering appealing against a decision taken by Gordon Brown on tax, where he retrospectively changed the law. The appeal lasted eleven years as the Revenue would not settle even though Brown was clearly outside the law. There was absolutely no common sense applied whenever Gordon Brown got involved in individual cases. I feel that people now have a chance of querying decisions by visiting their MP and asking for support, and getting their cases heard, the system that used to work prior to 1997. Let's see.

  2. Tapestry, the problem with relying on appeals to rectify mistakes is that you need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself to mount an appeal in the first place. A lot of people with genuine claims (with mental health problems, for instance) will feel so helpless by that point that they'll just give up. Presumably, Gerri Peev would see that as evidence that they were "trying it on" all along.

  3. All systems of administration begin with a decision. The only method of redress against an injustice is to hold an appeal. If the system of appeals is inaccessible, or brutally unfair, I would sympathise, but the State cannot do peoples' thinking for them. It can only appoint a decision-taker, give guidelines and offer an appeals procedure. There are no other methods known to man.

  4. Absolutely, there has to be a safety-net as a last resort, but that's no argument against taking every reasonable step to ensure that the original assessment is as fair and accurate as possible. It's not beyond the wit of man to achieve that, even in the context of a 'tougher' test.

  5. Having spent the best part of 42 years as a cook, several of those working 2 jobs to keep our home in order, my mother developed a Baker's Cyst.

    The, eventually, prescribed treatment was to involve surgery, however pre-surgery tests revealed a leaking heart-valve which meant the planned surgery could not be performed.

    6 months before her 60th birthday, with letters from her GP and consultant surgeon, she was told that she was 'fit for work' as she could be retrained to answer telephones...

    You'll be pleased to know she eventually won her appeal.

  6. That's horrendous, Jim. Probably if your mother had been put on JSA for an extended period, she'd eventually have had that cut off as well, on the grounds that by only looking for telephone-related work she wasn't trying hard enough...

  7. The trouble is that it's just not always true that people can transfer from one job to another.

    Would, for example George Osborne be able to work in a mine, or bake cookies?

    The appeals procedure is difficult and harrowing for many people who are ill. The forms for an initial re-look by decision makers are very easy, but the decision makers rarely overturn a decision. This means a tribunal before a judge and a medical person, appointed by the English Ministry of Justice (about to suffer cuts of 25%). These forms are difficult and daunting. Those with access to a social worker who knows what to put down, may have a better chance than those with no such access.

    While all of this is going on, the benefit has been stopped. People are living on air, or have agreed to collect JSA. That means signing to say they are looking for work.

    Finally, after many months of waiting, the actual appearance before a judge and doctor are terrifying for many people.

    As so many conditions are variable, it is bad luck if this is a good day for you, or if adrenalin has given you more energy than normal.

    And the system is being run by commercial companies paid by result!

    What a way to run a country.