Thursday, 25 August 2011

Your year is up! Get thee on your wheelchair and find a job!

I wrote to my MP recently regarding time limiting of ESA. I am totally disgusted by the reply forwarded to me from Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud. But I will concentrate on just two paragraphs.

Currently people can qualify for many years of benefit on the basis of NI contributions made over a relatively short period of time. This is no longer acceptable in the current fiscal climate were we need to review the balance between contributions paid and indefinite entitlement to support.

So there we have it black on white. The principle on which the welfare system was founded “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is to be abandoned. Woe betide you if you have not paid much NI. More worryingly, following this logic, contributions based benefits could well be under further threat down the road.

And the reason behind this? “The current fiscal climate”. In other words, disabled people are to bear the penalty for errors in judgment made at the highest levels and which have destabilised our economy. In a civilised society are these really the people who should be bearing this burden?

It is very tempting to follow Freud’s reasoning and blame the benefit recipient for “taking more than they put in”. But it is my experience and observation that when it comes to illness and disability the total amount of NI you pay is simply pure dumb luck and has little to do with willingness to work or any other factor.

I will take myself as a prime example. I did pay NI for a period of 5 years. After this time my illness had progressed to such an extent that I had to give up work. After taking the dreaded WCA I was put into the support group of ESA (ie I am never expected to be able to work again and have unconditional support). But my illness could well have started 5 years earlier. In that case, with the best will in the world I would never have paid any NI at all. Conversely, it might have started 10 years later. In that case I would have paid 15 years NI instead of 5. In either situation I would have been no more or less “brave”, stronger or lesser willed or more or less eager to work. It would simply have been down to luck of the draw.

We do not think it right in principle that those who are assessed as able to undertake work related activity should be able to remain on contribution based ESA for an unlimited period. We have therefore decided to introduce a 1 year time limit (…).

This argument simply takes my breath away. ESA is an out of work benefit. Those in the WRAG (Work Related Activity Group) who are talked about here are those who are expected to be able to work again one day with the right support. That support takes the form of work related activity. Being able to do work related activity (which might be something like doing a few hours a week volunteer work, or a training course) is nothing like being able to hold down a job week in week out for 35 hours a week. So taking away the benefit and at the same time the very support which goes with it is both unfair and short sighted although admittedly lucrative for the government since it will save £30 per week. And let us not forget that these people have passed the stringent WCA and remain UNFIT FOR WORK!

Time limiting it to one year is saying that ANY illness or disability must be treatable or curable within one year. This is simply laughable. This policy is going to hit many very sick people including people with MS, recovering cancer patients and people with long term chronic illnesses. The issue has already been raised at prime ministers questions but Mr Cameron has been remarkably evasive as to how many people will be adversely affected. In fact, he seemed unaware of the difference between the categories of ESA.

I will be writing back to my MP and I urge all of you who can to do the same and to raise awareness of this issue. Although ESA will still be available on an income basis, the threshold will be so low that disabled people are about to become a financial burden on their loved ones, creating a very unequal relationship. I myself have already worked out that it would be financially unviable to get married!

Just remember, don’t get sick. If you do, you have a year before you have to get on your wheelchair and find a job!


  1. It is at least pleasing to know that you were correctly put into the support group, so many severely ill people are finding they are not. If it isn't too personal, can I ask which criteria was applied for this? - knowing this might help others (like me!) who are fearfully waiting for their IB to ESA transfer and are scared they will end up in the WRAG.

  2. My situation is probably different to most peoples.

    The first time round I didn't have to have a medical at all. There is a small group of people this applies to apparently: terminally ill people, and those on HRM and HRC DLA who they consider it might be hazardous to their health to undergo the WCA itself. I only had to fill in the ESA50. (This is the medical application form, quite similar to a DLA form).

    I was called back for reassessment 6 months later. This time I had to have a medical as you can't go any longer than that without one. But I was allowed a home visit.

    The doctor who came had read my notes and my ESA50. He saw all the equipment I had in my flat and asked me a few questions but really barely examined me as he said it would cause me too much discomfort (very true!). He told me he was recommending I be awarded the support group for the longest period allowable.

    I think the major things which swing it are the facts that on a bad day I am bedbound. Even on a good day if I go out I can only sit up for a total time of 2 to 3 hours.

    I "fail" their sitting test (how long can I sit up for), as well as using a normal mouse (I have to use a trackball). I imagine that counts quite strongly in my favour. Apparently one of the things they look for is whether you would be able to work in a call centre. So if you can sit and use a "normal" computer and mouse, they are happy.

    I would also score points because of epilepsy and weekly blackouts, the standing test obviously, a number of manual dexterity tests, putting on and/or hanging up my coat, digestive issues, and some cognitive problems such as memory and concentration.

    As always the big challenge was filling in the form. I did repeat myself a lot. But I followed the advice I'd always been given: make the form fit you, don't try to fit the form. When you have finished, you should have mentioned every symptom you have. If you haven't, then go back and find somewhere you can put it.

    I know this is a frightening time. All I can do is wish you luck. Most importantly take your time over the ESA50 form and make sure you fill it in well.

  3. It's not just after a year "get a job", it's also after a year "be a burden on your partner and family instead of the taxpayer", unless they're on benefits too. For a government so keen to increase disabled people's "independence" and promote marriage, this seems an extremely retrograde step. I foresee a heck of a lot of breakups.

    I'm dreading the brown envelope (or white apparently if it comes from ATOS) which had been due next month until I qualified for DLA HRC earlier this year. Now what happens is a total mystery. On the plus side, my assistance dog fetches the mail so if it arrives I can say that he ate it.

  4. You're absolutely right Deus. I only touch on this in my last paragraph where I say "disabled people are about to become a financial burden on their loved ones, creating a very unequal relationship. I myself have already worked out that it would be financially unviable to get married!".

    I pointed this out in my letter to my MP, but this was totally ignored and the issue not even addressed by Lord Freud.

    Oh and in response to a couple of people who complained about my use of a wheelchair stereotype, I was just making a pun of the well known phrase "get on your bike and find a job". I am well aware that the majority of disabled people are not wheelchair users. I'm sorry if I caused any offence to anyone.