Following the announcement by the new secretary of state for Work and Pensions that people with on-going health conditions or impairments which will only get worse will no longer have to go through repeat assessments for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Ruth Patrick reflects on the mixed impact of this welcome change.
The man now in charge at the Department for Work and Pensions – Damian Green – wants to be ‘hard-headed’ but not ‘hard-hearted’, or so he says. First evidence of this new approach has come in the very welcome news that many disabled people will now be spared repeated reassessments for ESA. Those who are judged to have severe, lifelong health conditions with no prospect of improvement will no longer face a repeated questioning of their eligibility, which sometimes occurs as frequently as every six months under the current system.
It is not yet clear exactly which groups of disabled people will be included under this new regime, but experts suggest it is likely to incorporate individuals with MS, autism, Huntington’s disease and those with congenital heart defects. The criteria is to be drawn up in conjunction with health professionals, and until then we shall have to wait to see who is and who is not included under the new rules.
It would be churlish not to welcome the end of repeat reassessments for some disabled people. Experiences of frequent Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) has created a climate of fear and insecurity for those, who have had to live with chronic and pervasive worry about whether their benefit entitlement will be maintained. My own research into the lived experiences of welfare reform found a new status quo of social insecurity, which sees many disabled people stuck in a cycle of uncertainty, worry and fear.
Isobella*, one of the disabled people I spoke to for this research, lives with Rheumatoid Arthritis and associated chronic health problems. She was placed in the Support Group of ESA, but was then told that her entitlement would be reassessed:
“You talk to people who are being assessed, and you say “when am I?”, so it is there on the back of my mind that I’m on borrowed time, waiting till they get round to it, and then of course there’s the “will I get it, will I, won’t I?” again. So not only are you waiting, you’re waiting for the decisions after it, and that does take it its toll. I certainly am less positive than I used to be and I think a lot of that’s down to not knowing what’s going on, not being kept informed, and of course there’s no point in phoning up because they can’t tell you anything.”
Isobella reflected on the cumulative, negative impact of this worry and uncertainty:
“It’s been getting harder to cope… there’s sort of a downward spiral, and I’m less optimistic than I have been over the years with things, and it does feel as though things are more in limbo than they ever have been.”
Isobella’s experience powerfully demonstrates the damage that repeat reassessments can cause, and why the end to reassessments for some is so important.
I spoke to Isobella following Green’s announcement. She welcomed what she described as a ‘positive step forward’, and an ‘intelligent move’. However, she was unsure whether she would benefit from the changes and described her ongoing anxiety as she waited for the brown envelope detailing her next reassessment to land on her doormat.
While Isobella is hopeful that she may benefit from the changes to reassessments, Catherine Hale, a disabled independent researcher and campaigner, doubts she will benefit from the reform:
“The changes to reassessment rules are good news for disabled people with lifelong impairments or progressive health conditions. However, they will not relieve the misery of the people failed most harshly by the WCA according to independent reviews – people with mental health conditions and illnesses like ME and fibromyalgia, where the prognosis is uncertain. I have had ME for 28 years, and have not been able to work or study regularly for 26 of those years.”
While the end of repeat reassessments for some of those on ESA is a positive change, so much more is needed if we are to create a social security regime for disabled people that is heard-headed but also prioritises principles of decency, meaningful security, dignity and respect. Vital first steps here would be a more comprehensive re-evaluation of ESA, as well as action to work with (rather than against) the expertise of disabled people themselves as individuals who know better than anyone about their own capacity and readiness to engage in paid employment. Rather than health professionals alone, the government should also include disabled people in the decision-making process about which impairments are included in the group exempted from repeat reassessment. Valuing and working with such expertise – rather than ignoring it – really would be hard-headed.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity of research participant.