As I wrote last week about employment/self-employment options for people with disabilities, it would seem perverse to disregard the recent kerfuffle over disability benefit claims and “fit for work" assessments.
The argument has, perhaps not surprisingly, become polarised between on the one side government and right-wing media, and on the other, disability organisations. The former feed a regular drip of statements about the small number of claimants who are judged to meet the eligibility standards to receive disability benefit, while the latter protest that the tests are unfair.
Those who inhabit the middle ground – the great British public – are probably terminally confused, and ready to give up on their attempts to make sense of the conflicting messages.
But I think it is important to make the effort to understand what is happening. First of all, work is a good thing. Studies have repeatedly shown that people with a real job are healthier and generally happier than those who are unemployed. Our aspiration should, therefore, be to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the benefits of employment. Apart from the well-being dividend, there are financial benefits, as the welfare bill is reduced, people who have been receiving benefits start paying taxes instead, and the NHS saves money on treating the extra illnesses accompanying unemployment.
It really does seem, though, that we are going about this in the wrong way. Work assessments are carried out by a private company, Atos Healthcare, who have been criticised this week by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. Their service has often fallen short of the standards we should expect, and they wield some Draconian sanctions, such as stopping an individual's benefit payments when through no fault of their own, they failed to attend for their assessment. Equally, the headline figures about the number of claimants found fit to work conceal the fact that a third of claimants appeal, and 40% of the initial decisions are overturned. The cost of dealing with all these appeals has been estimated at over £30 million a year, and the system is really struggling to cope with the number of cases coming through.
The company is paid per assessment, without any penalty if their assessment is subsequently shown to be wrong. Which means that taxpayers are footing the bill twice: we pay for people to be assessed, we then pay to sort out the facts about their condition subsequently.
The person being put through this process clearly pays in many ways, including the stress of the assessment itself (which is probably unavoidable), but also the fear that however ill they are, they may well be judged fit enough to work, and have to endure an appeal process in order to prove otherwise. All the while dealing with an organisation which seems to be on a mission to make their life as hard as possible, and being portrayed in much of the media as a “benefit scrounger".
In fact the only people who don't seem to be paying are Atos, who apparently have no real incentive to improve the quality of their service or the accuracy of their assessments. They are shielded from the financial consequences of getting things wrong, which would be the usual correction mechanism in the private sector, and despite the widespread criticism of their service, they are picking up further government contracts, which does tend to make people believe that the exercise is purely about saving money on disability benefits.
You don't have to be a disability activist to feel angry about all this. Yes, by all means assess people to see whether they are able to work, with the right support, but let's do it in an intelligent and compassionate manner: and let's not forget that the other half of the equation is putting in place adequate and timely support for employers and jobseekers, so that the aspiration of finding and keeping a job can be realised.