15 July 2011
Yesterday representatives from charities involved with the Disability Benefits Consortium, including Action for M.E.’s Chief Executive Sir Peter Spencer, attended a second roundtable meeting with Minister for Employment Chris Grayling MP at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
This was a follow up to a meeting held in September 2010 and attended by representatives from around 20 different charities.
Chris Grayling was supported by James Bolton (Health, Work and Well-being Directorate) and Karen Foulds (Jobcentre Plus).
1. The DWP claims to have made good progress with implementing the year 1 changes agreed following Professor Harrington’s report on Work Capability Assessment (WCA) last year.
2. The charities stated that there were still many areas of unhappiness with Atos. The Minister stated that charities should deal with the DWP and not Atos directly, adding that in each jobcentre there should be a readily visible copy of the Atos charter. The DWP should be informed of any failures to comply with the charter, including if the charter was not in a place for all to see.
3. The transition process from Incapacity Benefit (IB) to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has been amended in the light of lessons learnt from the pilots held in Burnley and Aberdeen.
Some of these improvements will now be piloted on the WCA for ESA in Wrexham and Bangor before being rolled out nationally.
4. The full national roll out of IB to ESA has begun. The DWP is processing 11,000 cases per week and expects to complete assessing all 1.5 million people on IB by March 2014.
5. Chris Grayling believes that the new processes will lead to fewer complaints but this will take time to assess as so few people have been through the new system. He emphasised that his aim is to get as many right decisions as possible.
6. Peter Spencer responded by challenging the Minister to explain: if that is the case, why was he allowing an assessment system - that he had accepted was not yet suitable for people with conditions such as M.E. - to continue to be used instead of delaying the assessment process for them until a fairer test is available? The perception of people with M.E. was that this was an indication of callous disregard for their right to fair treatment in order to save money.
The Minister strenuously denied that cost saving is a driver but once again refused to explain why a temporary waiver could not be granted.
7. There is much inconsistency in the way in which jobcentres are obtaining the additional medical evidence recommended by Harrington’s first report and some ambiguity concerning the DWP’s interpretation of the arrangements and what guidance should be given.
8. The Minister was explicit in saying that GPs’ opinions were not in his view wholly objective. The level of evidence would in most cases need to be a specialist consultant.
Peter Spencer pointed out that this did not work for M.E. because too many areas of the UK have no specialist services that could provide evidence.
Citizens Advice Bureau emphasised that many doctors, including GPs insisted on financial payment for such reports. This was not affordable for people living on benefits with no other sources of income which introduced a two tier system that favours the relatively well off.
Peter Spencer suggested that the DWP should consider appointing neurological function champions who would be available to give advice to Atos assessors and DWP decision makers. (NB. mental health function advisors are being appointed in recognition that some conditions are particularly difficult to assess.)
Chris Grayling suggested that the idea be fed into the Harrington consultation which began this week. He also invited charities to brief DWP/Atos (jobcentres) on a regional basis – something which the MS Society has already begun to do.
9. In a discussion about how employers are being incentivised to support disabled people, Peter Spencer asked the Minister if he would agree to consider a major event with employers next year where a range of disability charities could help to inform employers about the practicalities and advantages of retaining/employing people who were well enough to work if reasonable adjustments were made. The Minister agreed to consider it.
10. Finally the charities were vociferous in opposing the 12 month time limit that has been retrospectively introduced for contribution-based ESA when a person or their family has other sources of income.
CAB cited cases of people having to sell their home in order to manage on very much reduced income this would cause. The Government had reneged on its obligations to insure people against ill health despite the National Insurance contributions they had made for many years.
Chris Grayling asserted that this was a political judgement forced on the Government by the inability of the national finances to fund the scheme except for those who had no other form of income and for whom a safety net would remain.
11. The Minister closed the meeting by thanking the charities for a large number of helpful suggestions. He would schedule a third meeting later this year. Meanwhile he reminded everyone of Professor Harrington’s call for more evidence on WCA that had been launched that day.