People with mental health problems who are frequently unable to complete more than two tasks in a row could be assessed as fit for work, under new revisions to the sickness benefit test outlined by the government last night (1).
Mind already has grave concerns that the Work Capability Assessment, the current test for sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance, is not sophisticated enough to accurately measure when someone's mental health affects their ability to work. However, in a radical tightening of the criteria, revisions to the test proposed today will simplify the test further by slashing the sections relevant to mental health in half (3), prompting fears that tens of thousands of people with serious mental health issues could be stripped of their benefits and forced to look for work they are unable to do.
Mind's Chief Executive Paul Farmer said:
Most people with mental health problems want to work, but need time and support to be able to do so. However we have seen some truly shocking examples of people who cannot be reasonably expected to enter any workplace being assessed as fit for work, including one person who was sent an assessment form while in psychiatric hospital, and another who cannot manage even simple tasks including getting up in the morning without one to one support.
It is clear that the current assessments are failing to pick up on people with major barriers to work, yet the government has responded by simplifying the tests even further, radically reducing the likelihood of spotting serious and enduring mental health problems. People who really cannot work because of serious illnesses who are found fit for work will have their benefits taken away and will be forced to look for work, some without hope of an employer ever taking them on.
Tightening the test may be a move to reduce the sickness benefits bill, but the knock on effects will be felt further down the line. The legacy of these errors would be another generation of people parked on a different benefit, unable to find a job and having to live on reduced incomes, in poverty.
The government proposals are hard on the heals of a Citizen's Advice Bureau report released just last week finding widespread failings in the whole assessment system, ranging from problems with the test, problems with the guidelines for those carrying out the test, and problems with their knowledge about mental health and disability (4).
Jenny has worked in the past but when she developed depression and anxiety she applied for Employment and Support Allowance. Despite two GPs, a psychiatrist and a senior nurse stating that she is not able to work or seek work, a 54 minute assessment and report written in the remaining 6 minutes disagreed and she was refused. The report included comments that she 'did not appear to be trembling...sweating...or make rocking movements". Jenny feels that her condition has been made light of and the refusal of ESA has caused her very significant distress which is severely impeding her recovery.
Michelle has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, severe anxiety and depression. She has very poor short-term memory, relying on a task list to get through daily routines, and avoids social contact and going to new places due to severe anxiety and panic attacks when she is particularly unwell. Michelle had to fight on appeal to qualify for Employment Support Allowance, but under new proposals, would likely be assessed as fit to work.
(1) Department of Work and Pensions: Building bridges to work: new approaches to tackling long term unemployment and Work Capability Assessment Internal Review www.dwp.gov.uk/building-bridges-to-work
(2) DWP, January 2010
(3) The assessment is based on a number of descriptors that measure what people can do in different areas of functioning. The current version contains 40 descriptors that are relevant to mental health, whereas the revised test will contain just 21.
(4) Citizens Advice Bureau: Not Working: CAB evidence on the ESA work capability Assessment