Work Capacity Assessment and the Denial of Disability

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2012 National Disabled Members' Conference
6 July 2012
Carried as Amended

This conference rejects without qualification the revised Work Capability Assessment (WCA) that underpins the Government’s drive to deny people who are sick or disabled the financial support they need because they cannot secure paid work. Thousands of disabled people’s lives are being turned upside down by the new assessment regime used to decide eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance.

Conference notes the recognition in Early Day Motion 295 which reports that last year 1,100 claimants died while under compulsory work-related activity for benefit and that a number of those found fit for work and left without income have committed or attempted suicide.

Conference agrees that there is a multi-dimensional link between the WCA being run by the company ATOS, the demonization of disabled people in the press and the 100% increase in disability hate crime, as identified in the disabled members news sheet to National Delegate Conference 2012.

Conference congratulates the British Medical Association for calling for the work capability assessment to end immediately and for it to be replaced with a system that does not cause harm to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

We also commend the joint letter to The Guardian from Black Triangle, Disabled People against the Cuts, Inclusion Scotland, The Social Welfare Union and several individuals backing the BMA call days after a claimant set fire to himself outside a Birmingham Job Centre.

Conference affirms WCA to be a Trade Union issue because:

• It aims to destroy the dignity of disabled people who are unable to secure their place in the labour market

• We have a responsibility to challenge this systemic injustice faced by disabled citizens

• The assessment is yet another example of the government’s privatisation ideology promoting profit before people

• Too many disabled people deemed unfit for work and awarded early ill health retirement on occupational health advice are subsequently measured as fit to work by an over-simplistic, medically based electronic questionnaire used as a test by ATOS.

It is clear, not just from the political debates and media coverage, but also from the evidence of those subjected to the WCA, that a number of suppositions are made when shaping entitlement for ESA, these include that:

Some people’s experiences are ‘subjective’ because their self-reported restrictions are supposedly not ‘explained’ by what is clinically measured, this is despite amendments within the Equality Act to remove the requirement for clinical evidence for the presence of some impairments

That these personal accounts of restricted functions are therefore not trustworthy

Someone acting on behalf of the state must make a judgement about the level of restrictions actually experienced.

This Conference agrees that the bio psychosocial (BPS) model, which provides a framework to acknowledge the whole of a person’s experience, rather than just that which can be measured by a medical label is the most appropriate social model interpretation to measure a disabled person’s capability for work however, government’s current initiatives in its outsourced contract with ATOS are instead justifying moral and economic judgements about whether a person meets a definition of a disabled person.

Since the purpose of introducing the WCA is to reduce the numbers eligible to receive financial support from the state, ATOS’ ability to renew this and gain other similar contracts, such as that for the forthcoming Personal Independence Payment, is likely to be linked to how many people are judged ‘fit to work’. A key reasons for replacing the old Personal Capability Assessment was that it was resulting in ‘too many’ people qualifying for out of work sickness benefits.

The motivations, and assumptions, behind the WCA and its operation are not new, however. Those administering the Poor Law in the seventeenth century were concerned to weed out ‘sturdy vagabonds’ from making claims on public resources, and distinctions have been made between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ ever since.

The history of collectively funded provision for those who cannot sell their labour because of impairment and/or illness, is marked by countless points at which the state, supported by popular media and politically driven ideologies decides that the current rules and procedures to determine eligibility are too slack, and instead introduces new systems which it is thought will better identify so-called genuinely sick and disabled people, thereby reduce the numbers qualifying for support.

Conference notes the two underlying factors running through the whole history of out of work sickness benefits, namely:

a) That there are political and economic factors which create a desire to limit or reduce public expenditure on supporting those who cannot support themselves through selling their labour

b) That there is an unequal relationship between those who design and deliver the welfare system and those who are subjected to it.

UNISON is committed to defending and promoting a welfare system that does not punish people for being unable to sell their labour and that an economic system should developed which can sustain a level of taxation sufficient to fund to support a decent standard of living for all. Such a system must defend and promote a welfare framework that respects the inactivity of a small number of disabled people in the labour market, one which seeks to empower disabled people as citizens and one which is co-produced by those who depend on it.

Conference instructs the National Disabled Members Committee to

1)Join the calls for the immediate abandonment of the Work Capability Assessment

2)Work with the NEC and Labour Link to ensure that the Labour Party’s tacit support for WCA ends

3)Seek to ensure that any replacement criteria for benefit for people who are disabled or have long term limiting health conditions that prevent them from working includes a provision that early retirement under Occupational Health advice with release of pension triggers eligibility for state benefit

4)Recommend UNISON affiliation to appropriate user led organisations of disabled people that are campaigning against government policy to reduce welfare support to disabled people.

5)Publicise information and advice for contesting adverse WCA assessments.

Submitted by the National Disabled Members’ Committee