The Countess of Mar tabled a written question that asked the Government: “What person or organisation is legally liable for the wellbeing of benefits claimants who are found to be fit for work under the work capability assessment and who are then made to work?” In a written reply, the Minister for Welfare Reform at the Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) on 19 December 2012, replied:

The purpose of the work capability assessment (WCA) is to assist DWP decision-makers in assessing eligibility for benefit, or levels of benefit. The WCA is not a medical diagnosis and the decision affects benefit only; it does not oblige anyone to work.

Whilst the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is legally responsible for all benefit decisions made by officials of the department on his behalf, there is no legal responsibility held by the Secretary of State for the well-being of benefit claimants.

Therefore, neither DWP nor WCA healthcare professionals are liable for any adverse consequence suffered by a claimant following a decision that the claimant is fit for work or for work-related activity.

This is a shocking statement on many levels.

Firstly, the dereliction of duty. The WCA is sign posted as a ‘Medical Assessment’ at many points in the ‘claimants journey’ and is conducted by a ‘health care professional’, employed by ATOS. One of the keys in understanding what is going on here is the change in emphasis. The coalition changed ‘sick notes’ in to ‘well notes’, and the assessment for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) became about assessing ‘what sort of work a person CAN do’. With tests such as picking up a pen off the floor, or moving a small empty cardboard box, and often not taking in to account any of the medical evidence provided, or even failing to even listen to the person sitting there. One commentator pointed out, “Now I may be wrong here and if I am please do correct me but when filling out the ESA form do the DWP not reserve the right to inform your GP of their decision? If the decision only affects benefit why do they do this?”

Recently, Louise Davidson had her benefits reduced after an assessment by ATOS, despite recovering from a double lounge transplant and having rejection complications. This isn’t a one off by any means, websites, activist, support groups and blogs are hearing daily from people who, despite very clear and serious medical conditions, are being declared either ‘fit for work’, or placed in to the ‘work related activity group’ (WRAG). The latter is a lower rate of ESA time limited to one year, because the assessment comes to the conclusion that the person will be able to work “at some point in the future”. An unspecified point in the future. It wasn’t time limited until the coalition came in to power.

And to add insult to injury, if people in this group are not “making appropriate preparation to get back in to work” – i.e. not making the effort to get well (!) –  then they can be sanctioned, and put in to the same work programme as people on Job Seekers Alowance (JSA). Knowing this, it is therefore deceitful for Lord Freud to state, “it does not oblige anyone to work.” And if someone is found fit for work, what else is someone supposed to do? They can go on to JSA. But, the Job Centre may not accept them as they have medical conditions and according to their rules there, the person may not be fit to work, therefore not able to claim JSA. This again is not unusual, and time again there is plenty of evidence of people with serious medical conditions being thrown out of the benefits system altogether.

But surely the cruelest part of this official statement, bearing in mind all the information above, is in the last paragraph. They deny ANY liability for “any adverse consequence suffered by a claimant following a decision that the claimant is fit for work or for work-related activity.” These are vulnerable people and Mike Sivier’s blog entry on the despicable response from the Prime Minister this week, lists just some of the 100s of people that we know by name who attribute their suicide or death to the consequences of being left with no hope by the decisions of the state.

Finally, I want to mention Karen Sherlock. She was one of the names Owen Jones tried to mention on Question Time when the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, turn red with rage and angrily shouted over Owen declaring, “We’re changing their lives. We’re getting them off benefit, and that’s what we’re doing.”

“Despite her own terror, she tried to tell her country, her peers, her friends – even journalists – what was happening to her and thousands like her, but shocked tuts didn’t save her. Open mouths and disgust didn’t save Karen; they didn’t save my friend. Perhaps no one could have, but those who hold and abuse power could have eased her fear or reassured her that they would act.

“Karen died on June 8 from a suspected heart attack”

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