Claimants tell TFN: DWP fit-for-work tests left us suicidal

Waiting assessment

​After exposing the humiliation of life on benefits through a series of articles, more claimants are telling TFN how the welfare system is failing the most vulnerable 

25th October 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Fit-for-work assessments are pushing ill and disabled Scots to suicide while support services aren’t equipped to cope with the fallout, a terminally-ill man has told TFN.

After we published the story of Susan Lightbody, who gave a candid account of what it is like to go through a work capability assessement, her account has encouraged three other claimants to come forward and say they too considered suicide after having their claims rejected or their payments sanctioned.

One man, Brian Reid from Ayr, who has oesophageal cancer, told of his “14 months of hell” after being assessed and having his claim for the new employment support allowance (ESA) rejected twice.

Another, Celia McKindless from Falkirk, told how she spiralled into suicidal episodes after the stress of her assessment, while retired railwayman Patrick Young said he was still receiving counselling after having his benefits were sanctioned and attempting to take his own life twice.

Brian Reid

Brian Reid

During an assessment, the strength of a claim is largely determined by comparing the claimant's disability or illness with a framework of set criteria, known as 'descriptors.’

But those going through the process describe it as degrading as private contractors working for the Department for Work and Pensions probe claimants with a range of carefully-pitched and often intimate questions. 

Many believe these are designed to unsettle and trip-up candidates.

According to 61 year-old Reid, one assessor smirked as he told him a “bout of cancer” didn’t exonerate a claimant from work while another asked if he expected to live more than a year.

His situation was made worse by poor advice from cancer charities which were “out of their depth.”

And he warned that a lack of support for the most vulnerable is making many going through the process to consider taking their own lives.

“Charities aren’t to blame. But it goes to show how ill people are being abandoned and left without support because this system is affecting so many,” he said.

“After my second assessment I resolved to kill myself if I failed the test again because I just couldn’t cope. I felt degraded, humiliated and mocked.

“Two leading charities provided pretty much pointless advice even though I think this is something they should now be well-versed in.”

Reid has been told he could live for between 2-5 years. His cancer can be treated, not cured, but assessors were unconvinced by his prognosis.

“They start from a blank slate. At the end you have either convinced them you’re ill or not. It’s all down to how you perform on the day. I’ve never felt so vulnerable,” he said.

 The DWP’s own statistics revealed that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended after they were found fit for work.

You either convince them you’re ill or you don't: it’s all down to how you perform on the day - Brian Reid

Other studies have found that work capability assessments sometimes led to a “deterioration in people’s mental health which individuals did not recover from”.

Celia McKindless, who had a kidney removed last year and suffers from anxiety disorder, said the lack of access to the internet placed her at a disadvantage before the assessment.

“Most claimants have information they’ve got online informing them how best to get through the test. But I only have a phone so I wasn’t clued-up about the pitfalls,” she said.

The main protection for claimants who are inaccurately assessed lies with an appeal, however these are lengthy and complicated, and many people need substantial support to be represented at tribunal.

“Citizens Advice gave me information but it was very general. In the end I failed the assessment and got put on job seekers allowance. I’ve now been told to find work or I’ll have my benefits stopped. When I first got told I wanted to end my life. But I’ve a family. I need to cope for them.”

Patrick Young told TFN he was transferred onto the work-related activity group (WRAG) of ESA - those claimants whom the DWP thinks are likely to be able to find work in the future after receiving extra help. 

But Young says he isn’t capable of working. “Arthritis stops me from walking far. I’m waiting for a hip replacement and I haven’t worked for eight years. Yet the DWP thinks I can. It’s caused me huge problems.

"The fear and stress of being forced into work led me to counselling and ended up getting me sanctioned because I didn’t turn up for a work activity session at the Jobcentre. It left me desperate. I didn’t want to live.”

Maximus, the private company undertaking some of the assessments in Scotland, said it wouldn’t comment on individual cases while a spokesperson for the DWP said all claimants were treated “fairly” according to strict criteria.