By Paul Farmer - Chief Executive of Mind - 23rd October 2012
Government figures on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - the benefit for people who are too unwell to work - were released today.
The figures show an increase in the number of people who will not have to engage with back-to-work programmes because they are too unwell to work - 26% of claimants assessed in winter 2011/12, compared to 15% a year previously. They'll be placed in the ESA 'support group' with unconditional access to ESA. In contrast, the 20% of people who have been deemed well enough to start preparing for a return to work (the ESA 'Work Related Activity Group') will have to undertake various training programmes to receive the benefit, and the 54% who have been judged fit for work will not be eligible at all.
The test that determines eligibility for ESA - the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) - is hugely controversial. Mind's view is that the WCA is too crude: in its current format, it cannot and does not recognise the impact that mental health problems can have on a person's ability to work.
The failings in the assessment itself are exacerbated by the way it is conducted. Assessors are not required to have expertise in mental health, and assessments are often made without additional evidence from the claimant's health professionals or social workers. As a result, thousands of people with mental health problems are wrongly assessed as fit for work, or inappropriately put into the Work Related Activity Group, every year.
The increase in people going into the Support Group is therefore welcome. It means that seriously unwell people will not have to attend inappropriate interviews or training courses at a time when employment is not a realistic outcome. We have campaigned long and hard for improvements to the WCA, and consider this a victory.
But it's not enough. Too many people are still found fit for work when they are not; too many feel belittled by their assessors; too many do not recognise the words in the transcripts of their own assessments; and too many are labelled scroungers, skivers and cheats by a system that doesn't understand their illness.
In fact most media reports imply that there are only two types of benefit claimants - those who are genuinely too disabled to work, and those who are playing the system. This false narrative hasn't emerged by chance - it is a direct consequence of a welfare system build around conditions and sanctions. There's an inherent assumption that claimants don't want to work and they must be pressurised or coerced back into employment with increasingly draconian sanctions.
Mind thinks it's time to question this approach. We know that the vast majority of people with mental health problems do want to work but need time and support to recover from illness and get ready for work. Far from supporting them to do this, the current welfare system has created a culture of fear, anxiety and distrust that has damaged people's mental health and pushed them further from the workplace. It benefits no one.