HUNDREDS of people with debilitating illnesses like Parkinson’s and MS, told by the Government they are not entitled to benefits, are overturning the decisions on appeal.
Campaigners claim the total is evidence of the fact people with serious medical conditions are being caught up in a Government clampdown on the workshy. The figures, obtained by the Derby Telegraph, show more than half of sick claimants in Derbyshire originally denied pay-outs win their case on appeal.
She said: “What is happening gives you the impression that there may be a specific target for how many people they are supposed to get off benefits. The Government has indicated that it wants to save £18 billion from its benefits bill. That’s a lot of money.”
Martin Hagues, welfare benefits supervisor at Derby Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB), said the latest re-assessments had led to soaring numbers of people asking the branch for help with appeals.
He said that, in 2010-11, it took up 148 cases of appeals against decisions to deny claimants Employment and Support Allowance, which is paid to people unable to work due to illness or disability. Of these, about 65% were successful. This went up to 216 in 2011-12 and he said he expected the success rate to stay between 60% and 70%.
Mr Hagues said: “Right now we are taking on about 40 ESA cases a month – that’s most of our case load.”
Latest statistics show that, between October 2010 and July 2011, 734 people in the county successfully appealed at court tribunals in Derbyshire against decisions to deny them ESA. That’s more than half of those whose appeals got that far.
Multiple-stroke victim Ray Edges was found fit for work by benefits assessors and is awaiting a tribunal to decide his appeal.
Former musician Mr Edges, 57, of Exeter Place, Derby, has short-term memory problems after suffering five strokes.
He said: “The worry over money was probably one cause of my last stroke.”
Mr Edges said he could no-longer carry on with his career as a gigging guitarist and singer because he had short-term memory problems, weakness in his left (playing) hand and partial deafness.
He said his memory loss meant that any kind of work would now be beyond him. He said: “I’d say to Government, ‘give me a job’, but I’d probably have forgotten I had one by the morning.”
Mr Edges is getting £71 a week while his appeal is decided.
Dr Caroline Hacker, head of policy and improvement at Parkinson’s UK, said that problems in Derbyshire and elsewhere were being caused by the Government’s reforms. She said: “It is deeply unfair and worrying for those with conditions like Parkinson’s who are unable to work.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has denied there is a target for how many people can have benefits. A department spokeswoman said it was working with mental health charities to improve its assessment process for people with neurological conditions like MS and Parkinson’s.
The Government changed the way that benefits assessments for people with serious medical conditions were carried out in October 2008, when it replaced Incapacity Benefit with Employment and Support Allowance. (ESA). This uses a new assessment system aimed at “finding out what people can do instead of what they can’t”.
At first, it was just for new claimants but, since spring last year, people who were already on benefits when it was introduced are being re-assessed under the new system.
Campaigners say an appeal that ends with a tribunal takes between nine months and a year to be processed, during which time people are distressed and often lose out on vital cash.
People are assessed to see if they should get ESA by healthcare company Atos, which is contracted to do the job by the Government.
Would-be claimants are put on the lowest level of ESA payments as soon as they are off work because of a serious medical condition. They then begin an assessment process to see if they should stay on it.
Claimants are first sent a form which asks what they are capable of doing, for example, making a drink or walking a certain distance. Once Atos has received this, they will, in most instances, ask the person to attend a medical.
Mr Hagues said that the main problem with the new assessments was that not enough time was taken over the physical examination.
He said: “The examination takes between 20 and 25 minutes. It takes us an hour to talk to someone and find out what they can do. The system needs to be more human.”
The assessment form has also come in for heavy criticism. Parkinson’s sufferer Mr Mitchell filled in a form only to be told that “a return to work could be considered in 18 months”, even though he was not asked to attend a medical. In his appeal letter, the 61-year-old, of Carlton Avenue, Shelton Lock, wrote: “How can somebody who sees me decide that I am unfit for work and someone who reads a form decide that I should consider a return to work?”
Derby charities say that people like Mr Mitchell, with neurological conditions, have been particularly badly hit by the benefits changes.
Paul Gates, vice-chairman of the MS Society’s Derby branch, said people with multiple sclerosis appeared to be wrongly assessed “in far too many cases”. He said: “They feel as though they have been branded as lazy scroungers who don’t want to work.”
The DWP spokeswoman said that work on improving the system was ongoing. She said that top occupational physician Professor Malcolm Harrington was invited to carry out a review of how the assessments work for people with mental health conditions.
She said: “Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society were asked to make recommendations to refine…the assessment as part of an independent review.
“Professor Harrington agreed with the Government that further evidence is needed to establish whether the charities’ proposals would make the assessment more accurate. We are investigating how to build up such an evidence base.”
Chronic fatigue and multiple sclerosis victims fight for rights
Chronic fatigue syndrome
AFTER Helen was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in October 2009, she was pleased to hear that she was eligible for ESA.
But, because many people recover from this illness, she was put in a category of claimants for people who could work again.
This meant that the 29-year-old, of Derby, who did not want to give her second name, would be re-assessed each year to see if she was still eligible.
On her first re-assessment, in March 2011, she was found fit to work despite, she says, being “in pretty much the same condition” as when she was first assessed.
She had to appeal with the help of Derby Citizen’s Advice Bureau – a process that ended successfully at tribunal in April.
Helen, a former advanced product advisor at a health food shop, said that, while her appeal was taking place, she was on the lowest possible rate of ESA.
Helen said that, last year, she “couldn’t walk down the road more than 150 metres before having to sit down and kept feeling dizzy”.
She said that the tribunal itself was a horrible experience.
Helen said: “I felt humiliated. That day I could barely sit up straight.”
Forklift driver, 53
A DERBY forklift driver with multiple sclerosis said the news that he had not qualified for ESA came at the worst possible time – just before Christmas.
He appealed with the help of Derby Citizen’s Advice Bureau in January and was told he had succeeded, without resorting to tribunal, at the beginning of May.
But he said that the stress took a heavy toll.
The 53-year-old, of Stenson Fields, who did want to be identified, said he had to undergo a heart scan and was put on additional tablets by his doctor.
He said: “My MS nurse said she had never known anyone try to get to work as much as me but, in the end, I just had to give up.
“Just walking up the stairs at home I can get to the point when I can’t lift my legs off the ground.
“I went through the whole process thinking I would lose my bungalow.”