Vital Disabled Student Support to be Cut. Save DSA!

Cross-posted from Sarah Campbell, Rolling with the Punches
Spread the word. Tell your MP. Write blogs. Let people know what is happening. We must try to stop this.

You can write to your MP online here.
Please also sign the e-petition here.
Share and Retweet this #ProtectDSA.

After becoming disabled as a teenager, I went to university, obtained a first class degree, then completed a PhD.  While I worked extremely hard, none of this would have been possible without the support of Disabled Student Allowance (DSA), which covers the extra costs for equipment and assistance disabled students may require in order to study at university.

This is why I was aghast to learn that the government has just announced plans to cut DSA.
Couched under the language of “modernisation”, “targeting funds at those who need it most”, “fairness”, is hidden the reality of an estimated 60 to 70% cut in funding.
At a time when Higher Education funding is at its lowest, the cost is being shunted onto universities, ill equipped and unprepared to deal with this.  This is a bit like suddenly asking employers to take over the funding and admin for Access to Work.

The government plans to make several key changes of which I will highlight just three:

1) DSA will no longer pay for “basic” computers and peripherals (even though required due to disability). This is justified by saying that “96% of students already own a laptop or netbook”.
Bizarrely this assumption is based entirely on a marketing survey conducted by the NUS for the company Endsleigh in 2013. This was conducted by email and only reached 1704 students, just 1% of the UK student population. The proportion of disabled students who responded is not stated.
Given the repercussions of this decision one would have hoped that the government would undertake a full and proper analysis of the computer equipment privately available to disabled students entering university.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was often too ill to leave my room. I was therefore unable to take advantage of the numerous public computers available onsite, often a mere 200 yards away.  A private computer was indispensable, due to my illness and disability and I would not have completed my degree without it.
DSA funded a private PC for me. BUT, it wasn’t anything fancy and so under these proposals would no longer be granted.

I am certainly not unique.  The National Association of Disability Practitioners submitted a report to the BIS call for evidence in summer 2013 which explained in detail why disabled students may not be able to use the IT facilities provided on campus and justifying the provision of such equipment to disabled individuals where needed.

I very much doubt every single new disabled student arriving at university in 2015 will own a computer. What will happen to those disabled students similar to me? Will they fail where I did not simply due to a change in funding policy?

2) The government will only fund the most specialist support workers.
When digging a bit deeper this turns out to be bands 3 and 4 of the non medical help services.
This means that the following help will NOT be funded:

  • practical Support assistant
  • library Support assistant
  • reader
  • Scribe
  • Workshop/laboratory assistant
  • Sighted Guide
  • proof reader
  • Study assistant
  • examination Support Workers
  • Manual Notetakers
The government says it is encouraging disabled students to be more “independent learners”. I feel they are completely missing the point of non medical helpers. They do not do the learning for the student. As much as is possible they enable the student to do the learning independently on the same level as any other student.
While teaching staff should strive to make their teaching materials accessible, this does not remove the need for these support workers.
Likewise technology cannot always fully remove the need for all of these support staff. Try getting voice recognition software for advanced mathematics. Heck, we even use a special specific word processing program!
3) Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) (eg dyslexia & dyspraxia) look set to be hit hard as they will only receive support “where their support needs are considered to be more complex”. This by definition means that those with slightly less complex needs will lose all support altogether. This will have a hugely detrimental effect.
One final comment: DSA was the first time I ever underwent an assessment of my disability needs. This was when I discovered that there were ways round some of the difficulties I was encountering.
For instance I was having huge trouble using a normal mouse. I was given a trackball. Something so simple, yet it revolutionised my academic work and relieved a great deal of frustration!
The DSA assessment process in itself is hugely important and can help disabled students discover what would be useful to them during their time at university, be it physical aids, computer aids, software, support workers or proper supportive seating. It is a mistake to assume that disabled students simply know this. It is vital that this continue.
___________________
DSA is a hugely successful scheme. It has been praised by the National Audit office for recruiting and retaining disabled students. It is also effective. The Equality Challenge Unit (2013) statistical report shows a higher proportion of DSAs claimants attained a First/2:1 than those who did not receive DSAs.
These cuts seem set to undo all this and steal away the opportunities we enjoyed from all future disabled students.
Spread the word. Tell your MP. Write blogs. Let people know what is happening. We must try to stop this.

You can write to your MP online here.
Please also sign the e-petition here.
Share and Retweet this and use #ProtectDSA

The Big Benefits Row

This post is from blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh. Sue was originally asked to be part of Channel 5’s ‘Big Benefits Row’ but was dumped shortly before airing. As she says, it is distressing that the concerns of sick and disabled people continue to be marginalised – but we can and do create our own news through social media. Her blog is well worth reading through to the end, not least for some insight on life with severe chronic illness.

As many of you may know by now, last night was the Big Benefits Row on Channel 5. “Roll up! Roll up for the spectacliar sight! Real life poor people for your viewing delight!”
I was contacted by the show’s producers early. Would I be on a panel to discuss welfare changes? They assured me it would be balanced and to their credit, I do think they worked very hard to make sure a range of views were represented in a way that shows like Benefit Street and On Benefits and Proud neglected entirely. Had I been a beleaguered austerity-junkie audience person, I think I would have had a rare taste of how it feels to find oneself outnumbered.
As the days passed before the show, I got that sneaking feeling I was being downgraded. Perhaps I should explain. I’ve done a lot of media now. Newsnight, BBC News, Sky, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, LBC and many, many more. The pattern is almost always the same. I’ve learnt never to tweet about bookings until I’m in the actual studio getting miked up. For every 5 approaches, I suppose one might actually come to something.
Initially, the plan is always for real a debate, or a full feature on welfare cuts or a hard hitting doumentary. As the producers of the shows try to get guests to appear to discuss disability welfare cuts in any serious kind of way, they realise the task is almost impossible.
For some time now, the DWP and No.10 have refused to put anyone up against me. (and presumably other campaigners) at all. At first, 3 (all BBC) went ahead, but the various researchers were all genuinely shocked at the lack of government engagement. All said they’d never known such blanket refusals to debate an issue.
Perhaps more sinisterly, they were shocked that invariably the DWP refused to take part unless the stories were edited their way. Iain Duncan-Smith has written repeatedly and furiously to the BBC about their lack of balance in reporting welfare issues. Anyone who follows the debate with even a flutter of fleeting interest will know just how ironic that is. If ever there has been an issue so poorly reported, with so much ignorance and so many lies, the current “welfare” debate must be it.
But it’s clever isn’t it? Refuse to debate at all and generally it will mean there can be no debate. You can shut down any and all opposition simply by saying nothing at all.
Anyway, I digress.
Even if a show does get made, invariably it gets watered down to the point of, well, no point at all really. An hour becomes half, which then becomes 15 minutes, which then becomes a 3 minute bulletin. A coalition MP becomes a “governmnet spokesperson” which then becomes an intern, which then ends almost without fail, with a member of the Taxpayers Alliance. And it’s just too easy to make them look silly, they do most of the work themselves.
I’ve been edited to make me look like a “shirker”, I’ve hauled my crohn’s riddled butt all the way to London only to be told “Oh, sorry, it’s not happening now, did no-one let you know?” I’ve been booked for shows under the pretence that a particular subject-du-jour is the subject only to be ambushed scrounger bashing vitriol the moment we go live. (Yes Nick Ferrari, I do mean you.) I’ve been made to walk to locations, despite pointing out repeatedly that I can’t walk far or stand for very long. “If you could just manage…..”
I’ve uncovered vast and shocking welfare stories only to find I can’t get them published anywhere. Bumped for Egypt. Bumped for Syria. Bumped for chickens in cat outfits. (That last one’s not even sarcasm!?!) Repeatedly I hear in a loop “But welfare isn’t a story.”
Well no, why would it be? The current social security cuts are stripping away an eye-watering £28 BILLION from the support and services sick and disabled people rely on just to get through the day. That’s a full FIFTH of the entire deficit reduction plan falling on those who often have no voice to defend themselves. One pound in every five!!!
In all, I’ve found dealing with the media to be the most revealing and frustrating part of the whole “being-a-campaigner” thingy. You have to get REALLY tough REALLY quickly and be prepared for an infinite prism of disappointments and frustration.
And so I bumped down those now familiar media steps last week with depressing familiarity.
First I would be on the panel. Then the panel became the front row with assurances all of the main invitees would be sitting there with me and all would get a fair say. I was an “invited guest” and “disabled people’s voices would be heard blah-blah-diddly-blah”. And so yet another hour became a 15 minute section of the show from which I might get to throw in a 3 minute soundbite or two. This in turn became “You’ll get a chance to speak from the audience” which fizzled out into “Ah, wheelchair issues mean you can’t sit here/there/anywhere so we’ll tuck you in that dark the corner out of the way.”
As I said, I’ve been around the media block a few times now. 4 years of blogging and campaigning is actually 56 in human years. I was emphatic with the producers from the start that I wouldn’t waste my energy spoons getting to London for nothing. They assured me repeatedly that that wouldn’t be the case.
As it happened, I also had a hospital appointment in London yesterday at 3pm. As only us sick people can really know, that is traumatic enough in itself. It takes 3 hours for Dave to drive me to central London and 3 hours to get home. Ordinarily, that alone would exhaust me for days after the actual event but instead, yesterday, I chose to wait 6 HOURS for the Big Benefits Row to start. By 8pm, every one of my loved-ones know not to phone me or expect intelligent reponses. Waiting up to do a show that starts at 9pm is significant in my world.
Sickies like me will also know just how much it costs in emotional energy to even contemplate a day like I had planned for yesterday. The only way I can get through them is on adrenaline. Bodies like mine, so used to ignoring physical crisis signals, compensate the only way they know how. As the adrenaline floods through your body it makes you feel shaky and sick. I can’t eat anything significant, I get a bit hyper. That good old fight or flight response recalls echos of demands from its genetic history. I wouldn’t even think about eating anything significant before a show like The Big Benefits Row anyway, just in case it causes some involuntary vomit to land on someone’s shoes. (*Other bodily fluids also available by request))
But our trials had barely started. Mik Scarlet (Writer for Huffington post and the Independent) Jack Monroe (working for Sainsbury’s, ITN to name just a couple). Lisa Egan (Sky contact for disability related welfare issues & an articulate, intelligent blogger.) and I (Guardian, BBC & this little bloggy-woggy) all met up beforehand to get something to eat and so arrived at the studio together.
Having only needed to use a wheelchair for just under a year, the reality of disabled access has shocked and appalled me too. Did you know for instance that most trains only have ONE disabled space and so can only take one wheelchair user? No, I had no idea either. And did you know that you can’t get in to most restaurants and shops despite access being a legal responsibility? Nope, nor me. Or that supermaket aisles often make it impossible to get around a shop independently? Or that you can’t use almost any of the London Underground?I didn’t know any of that stuff
When we got to the Channel 5 studio an epic confuddle broke out. As I’ve also learnt, they often do when some people are faced with several people on wheels all at once. They could only take 3 wheelchairs. 4 would apparently tip the building over into a dangerous and unforgivable fire risk. They couldn’t evacuate four of us!
I’d been trying not to cry for about two hours by this point and the only way we were all going to get in was if I left my wheelchair in the foyer and hobbled down to the basement studio. I was the only one who could walk at all.
Once on the set, even bigger confuddlement broke out. “You can’t put them here, they’re in the way of the cameraman” (I thought the “them” was a nice little dehumanizing detail eh?) “You can’t let them sit at the front, it makes them look too important” (I precis) etc etc.  After at least 10 minutes of this infathomable conundrum, Mik shouted to the audience who were now in their seats ready for the show to begin. “Get a job they say?? Are you watching this? Most of the time, we can’t even get a bloody seat!”
I noted with great irony that the panellists had to sit on a raised platform anyway, so even if they had kept a disabled person on the panel, it’s unlikely they could have overcome the first and simplest of barriers and actually got up on to the stage.
Already brimming with brittle frustration, adding Edwina Curry and Katie Hopkins into the mix with no off button took every ounce of professionalism I had to survive without actually combusting.
Surprisingly, I thought the debate was very good. If anything, it was biased in our favour for once. Matthew Wright held Hopkins and Currie to account frequently and the range of people who did get to speak were varied. I think it surprised everyone when Rachael Johnson, (Boris’ sister and editor of The Lady) and Sam Delaney, (editor of Heat magazine) defended people who have to rely on social security and presented some very helpful myth-busters about “welfare”.
However, I could barely breathe with pent up frustration. As each part of the show went live again following an ad break, I’d pray that something would be said about disability and every time it wasn’t, I deflated further and further (DON’T be a crybaby on national TV…DON’T be a crybaby on national TV….DON’T be a crybaby on national TV, repeat) How are you suppoed to have a debate about social security and not include sick and disabled people? We rely on it more than any other group! Here’s a few facts, just in case you’ve never read this blog before:
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is being cut by 20%
The criteria to qualify for DLA slashed has been by 60%
1 MILLION people are to be stripped of Employment and Support Allowance
The Independent Living Fund has bee scrapped**
1500 people lost their jobs as Remploy factories were all closed
Just 3% of the entire welfare budget goes to unemployed people
Social security fraud is around £1.2 Billion per year – less than half of 1%, or 0.15% of total welfare budget. That’s just £1.50 lost for every thousand or 0.15% of the total welfare
The DWP pay out much more in their own errors – 2.2 Billion
A whopping £16 BILLION goes unclaimed, generally to avoid the stigma of “welfare”
We have some of the toughest criteria for claiming social security in the developed world.
Is our UK social security systemn too generous? No again. In international terms we come just 46th out of 51, paying some of the lowest benefits anwhere
440,000 sick or disabled people will be hit by the Bedroom Tax. That’s over 2 thirds.
The very second the show ended I got Dave to bust me out of there without even saying goodbye to MJ or Lisa or Mik. I cant recall another time I’ve been such an emotional coward, but I just had to run away (well, wheel away, but you get the idea)
As Dave pushed my official fire risk chariot back to our car, I tweeted “Yes,I was kicked off the panel at the last minute and no, of course there was no-one disabled person in my place” #BigBenefitsRow
But just as he did, something magical seemed to happen as we started the tedious drive home. My tweets exploded all over twitter, it was all I could do to read them quickly enough as they flooded in. Thousands and thousands of you, it was quite awe inspiring. By midnight I was trending 4th in the UK
And yet again my friends, we shall have to make our own news. If you’ve read to this point, PLEASE don’t close the page until you’ve shared it with your networks. You can use the buttons just below to retweet or post it to Facebook. But PLEASE, if you can support us in any way, sharing this article can show producers of shows like the Big Benefits Row that we DO have a voice, we DO matter.
As campaigners we’ve often reminded ourselves that “Alone we whisper, but together we shout.”
I imagine that the producers of last nights BBR got a better offer than me. Someone with a higher profile who they thought might attract more viewers. Some suggested it could be more sinister than that, but I’m convinced that for most affluent, white, able-bodied producers, long term ilness or disability simply doesn’t come on to their radar. Another genetically-programmed response means we simply cannot believe in our own mortality or believe that any harm can ever cast shadows over our lives.
We can show them – and the public – that on social media if nowhere else, sick and disabled people can -and will – be heard.

Independent reviewer of WCA said it was not fit for roll-out

When the Coalition government rolled ESA out nation-wide we were assured that ESA was fit for purpose, and that the independent reviewer (then Professor Harrington) had confirmed this. What we were told, by the then Employment Minister Mr Grayling, was that Professor Harrington had said, “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.”

But Sue Marsh, disability rights campaigner, was not convinced by this. In her own words, “Harrington was clearly an intelligent man who had made thoughtful and intelligent suggestions for improving the assessments. I could never understand why he agreed to put the most vulnerable claimants through a failing test.

So she decided to ask him.

And this is the response she got:

“To your question:

I NEVER—repeat–NEVER agreed to the IB migration. I would have preferred that it be delayed but by the time I said that, the political die had been cast.

I then said that I would review progress of that during my reviews.

The decision was political.

I could not influence it.

IS THAT CRYSTAL CLEAR?

Malcolm.”

As Sue said, I’d say that’s very clear. Professor Harrington did not agree to the roll-out of ESA to Incapacity Benefit claimants.

Just last week a report revealed that Atos assessors do, in practice, face targets to keep the percentage of claimants awarded ESA low. A judge ruled that the WCA discriminates against people with mental health conditions. Another judge ruled that a physiotherapist has no expertise to comment on the abilities of a person with mental health conditions. A study on the descriptors used for ESA found that alternative descriptors (albeit based on the flawed WCA model) resulted in more information being gathered, higher satisfaction from both the HCP and the claimant, and more claimants being found to have limited capability for work. The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment reports multiple evidence that ESA does not work, as does a related report, also by the Spartacus Network, on the failings of ESA.

ESA now faces massive backlogs for both the original assessment and then for appeal. Appeal success rates are rising, and currently stand at 42%. Just 25% of those told they are fit for work are in work 12-18 months later.

In the face of all this evidence, can the government really say that the Work Capability Assessment is working?

First speech by Kate Green, Shadow Minister for Disabled People

Introduction from Sue Marsh

“I’ve just seen Kate Green’s first speech as Labour shadow minister for disabled people.
It rocks, and is so different to what we were hearing just two years ago, it’s hard to put the two together.
Just one thing. But to me it’s a big thing.
When Alf Morris, also Labour and the first minister for disabled people passed his ground breaking legislation, he called it the “chronically sick and disabled people’s act.”
I’ve campaigned primarily by trying to re-introduce that original intent back into the narrative. I always, always say “sick and disabled” and it’s gives me great pleasure that it has become so universal that even DWP documents and statements now use the phrase. Language matters and if we don’t want politicians – and the public – to get away with two dimensional attitudes to disability, we can’t use two dimensional definitions.
Otherwise, as I said, it rocks.”

Kate’s speech:
“It’s a great pleasure to join Unison here this morning. Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be invited to your equalities conference, and I think I recognise some of the same faces! But I have to tell you this is my very first speech in my new role as shadow minister for disabled people – so I hope you’ll be a little kinder to me – you know so much more than I do, and you will have much more to tell me than I can tell you.
Writing this speech has however been made much easier for me by a very helpful article which was published last week by my predecessor Anne McGuire.
I know Anne is well known to you, and I can imagine there was real dismay when she announced she was stepping down from the frontbench.
She’s been an expert, passionate and committed advocate for the rights of disabled people for many years, she was a highly effective minister when we were in gvt, and I know she’s a very hard act to follow.
I’m very glad to say that she’s also my good friend.
Anne in her article last week wrote that the last three years have been the most threatening for disabled people and their families, and I could not agree more.
After years of progress – under both Tory and Labour governments – the DDA, Making Rights A Reality for Disabled People, the signing of the UN Convention – under the Tory-led coalition it feels we have gone back to the dark ages.
Disabled people have been – I think it’s not an exaggeration to say this – they’ve been vilified, while the support that they rely on has been slashed, without a care for the long term or the human consequences.
According to campaigners, disabled people have been hit 9x as hard as non disabled people by austerity cuts.
And such support as has remained in place is increasingly being confined to the most severely disabled .
Yet such an approach is simply counterproductive.
It will lead to greater isolation, reduced social participation, worse health outcomes, less chance that disabled people will be able to participate economically.
It will pile up costs and anguish for disabled people, their families, communities, and ultimately the public purse.
Yet even as disabled people are taking the hit, every day it seems there’s a drip drip of stories in the media that repeatedly portray them as scroungers, skivers, or frauds.
So I want to say very clearly – what’s being said, insinuated and implied, is wrong, it’s cruel and it’s shameful.
It creates division, and it feeds into quite despicable levels of abuse and violence.
It underlies unacceptable levels of hate crime against disabled people, and we need to call time on it now.
Labour will continue to stand against this, and condemn misleading and inflammatory portrayals of disabled people – and I want to lay down the challenge to government ministers: you should be doing so too.
But while there’s so much for us to be angry about under the present gvt, today I want to think ahead about how Labour would approach disabled people’s rights.
I hope some of you will have contributed to the work that Anne and Liam Byrne set in train to consult widely on what a Labour government could do to make disabled people’s rights a reality.
We’ve asked Sir Bert Massie to chair a taskforce advising us on how we should take our thinking forward in the light of what we’ve been told, and I’m very much looking forward to discussing ideas with Bert and his team.
But, you know, I’m already clear about the guiding principles that we as a Labour government will follow.
Ed Miliband has talked powerfully of how we are a One Nation party.
That means a vision of a better Britain, in which everyone has a stake, everybody plays a part, prosperity’s fairly shared.
And nowhere could our notion of being One Nation be more tested than in the way in which we include disabled people and stand up for their rights.
So every policy Labour develops will be about including, not isolating disabled people.
It will be about respecting them, celebrating the contribution they make, not demeaning and insulting them.
And disabled people themselves will be co-producers in decision-making about them and their lives.
Of course, every individual will face different circumstances, no two disabled people have the same lives or needs.
But we should not be satisfied until every disabled person can achieve their full potential.
Now, we’ve said we will be tough on benefits spending. That doesn’t mean blaming or demonising people, but it does mean being tough on what it is that prevents every disabled person is from participating as they could.
For many, that includes being in work.
And I think we have much more to do to address the disadvantage that disabled people face in the labour market.
Why are disabled people less likely to be in work, to earn less if they are in work, or to progress less than non-disabled people?
What barriers are in their way? And more important, what do we do about it?
I truly believe the gvt has missed a huge trick in its annual reviews of the WCA. It could have taken the opportunity to think big.
But nowhere have ministers asked – what would need to change to enable more disabled people to work and to thrive at work?
Instead they’ve concentrated – crudely – on sorting people into those who can work and those who can’t, and putting more pressure on individuals they think could work.
I simply don’t buy that binary approach. People’s lives are more complicated. Conditions are more nuanced. Work – and contribution – comes in many forms.

So I want to look very hard at all aspects of disabled people’s employment chances, not just go round beating up on Atos (though they deserve some of that), not just a bit of tinkering with the WCA.
I want to see our labour market strategy linked much more closely to our industrial strategy.
And I want us to learn from what were able to try in govt – whether that’s Work Choice, A2W, P2W, NDDP – and take a hard look at what worked and what did not.
On social care, my colleague Liz Kendall and I want a sustainable model that ensures we don’t get into a situation where disabled people end up becoming increasingly dependent for want of often quite small amounts of care.
The government clearly thinks responsibly for caring can be thrown more and more on families.
But that’s not always feasible, it’s not fair, it’s not economically effective, and it’s not what many disabled people want.
We need a system that preserves people’s independence, that is a springboard to their wider participation in society, not a means of putting them out of sight and out of mind.
And on financial support for disabled people, well look, I’ve always known that a secure and decent income is a prerequisite for full social engagement – whether that’s about participating in education, employment, being able to volunteer or participate in community activity, care for your kids, enjoy and live your life.
You know we won’t be able to reverse every benefit cut when we come into government, though we’ve already said we’ll abolish the hated bedroom tax – and 2/3 of those affected by it are disabled people.
But I’ll tell you this: I am all too aware that the cost of living crisis is felt acutely by disabled people, as the extra costs associated with disability pile up.
So it will be my priority to make sure that every measure we announce to address the cost of living crisis that families face under this out of touch, arrogant, millionaires’ gvt – that every one of our policies goes the extra mile to work for disabled people, their families and carers too.
I’m conscious of how much of your time I’m taking. It’s because there is so much I want to say.
So let’s treat this as the start of a conversation, not the end of a speech.
When I heard Anne was standing down, I too was dismayed – but I have to tell you my very next thought was that I passionately wanted her job.
I know how bad things have become in just three short years, but I know we can do so much better for disabled people. I know it can be better than this.
With your support, I very much look forward to getting to grips with the challenge. Please let’s stay in touch.

Meeting with Mr Hoban

From Sue Marsh, Stef Benstead and Sam Barnett-Cormack

So, yesterday, as most of you will know by now, representatives from Spartacus finally got to meet with Mark Hoban to discuss Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments after almost a year of trying.

Other online groups representing sick and disabled people had felt very strongly before the meeting that it should be made explicitly clear that WCAs should be scrapped. They are unfit for purpose and no amount of tinkering with descriptors or processes will change that.

We agreed, but felt that for that approach to be credible, there had to be alternative suggestions in place. Happily, in just 24 hours, all of the online groups representing sick and disabled people were able to agree to this solution in time, meaning that we could go into the meeting with the whole weight of the online campaigning community behind us.

We agreed that we would raise the issues people had agreed in extensive consultations on my blog to be the most important and “listen” to what the minister said on these issues, suggesting things that could at least make the process safer in the meantime until we were able to put together an alternative proposal.

With this in mind, here is a summary of the issues we raised and Mr Hoban’s responses. We feel that the meeting was remarkably productive in this sense.

“Before any further discussions took place, Sam explained that there was widespread support for abolishing WCAs. The system causes stress, fear and anxiety, it is not trusted and we doubt that any amount of “reform” would now be able to change that.

Sue opened the meeting by saying that we hoped we could break down the oppositional, partisan and confrontational stance that has often blighted discussions over ESA. She asked for genuine engagement. She pointed out that we had only ever tried to present helpful, evidence based research, aimed at showing how WCAs affect real people. She suggested that we all had experts and networks that could be valuable in re-designing a new system.

Mr Hoban appeared to listen carefully. He and three civil servants all took notes during the meeting. They did seem to genuinely want to discuss issues openly with us. We’re delighted to say that the meeting had none of the frustrating stonewalling or fudging of some parliamentary debates.

45 minutes passed in the blink of an eye and sadly, though we did ask the questions, there was no time to pin down answers on where things stand on mental health assessments/champions and the decision to divide physical and cognitive conditions when it comes to scoring points during an assessment. However, the Chief Medical Officer gave us his card at the end of the meeting and we agreed to chase up or define any issues that we weren’t clear on, so this will be an opportunity to clarify.

Mr Hoban appeared to particularly agree on gathering medical evidence earlier in ALL claims. Civil servants confirmed that an ESA113 was only sent to GPs in limited circumstances. Mr Hoban agreed that medical evidence was crucial at the earliest stage andaccepted that sending an ESA113 in ALL cases as soon as the claim is received might be a solutionThey accepted that GPs don’t always return this evidence and agreed to do more to make sure that they do. 

Sue suggested that explaining and suggesting the use of “Reliably Repeatedly and Safely” on the ESA50 form more often would be very helpful and Mr Hoban appeared to agree that this would be a helpful change. He particularly agreed that there is a need for more guidance to help people complete their forms in a way that would ensure they give the information needed to make decisions. He told a story of one of his own constituents who had filled in the form particularly badly. He said he thought he could have done a better job himself after just 5 minutes with the constituent and that it was clear much more guidance could be included to help with the process. They committed to looking again at what could be done with some urgency. 

We asked about universal audio recording of assessments and urged that this was the only way to truly know that assessments had been conducted fairly and accurately. Mr Hoban was not entirely convinced that this was the case and cited examples of HMRC losing audio files, which had created even more suspicion. He didn’t rule it out however, and did say that letters would be amended to say that the option was available to all claimants.

We asked about the Evidence Based Review (EBR) and trials of new descriptors for Mental Health and Fluctuating conditions. It was clear from the civil servants that this was taking longer than they had originally envisioned. It had proved harder than anticipated to develop robust descriptors that claimants could
be compared against and which could be tested; some of the original submissions had been too vague to be of practical use. They did agree that so far it is clear that lessons can be learned from this alternative assessment. Sue asked what would happen if the new descriptors were more generous to claimants and would cost more to implement. Would they say it was just too expensive or would the Treasury veto any changes? Mr Hoban confirmed that they would do what was right. There was no financial limit on how generous a new set of descriptors might be and these will be based on evidence not cost. He cited examples of more people going into the Support Group and how that had cost over a billion pounds extra in the first year, but that it had been accepted financially. 

Mr Hoban was particularly concerned by how long it was taking to assess people. He said that he was concerned about what is right even when improvements are difficult to implement and is keen to learn what works and doesn’t work so that the process can be improved. He wants to see a test that is robust, is the right test and has credibility. If changes are identified that would improve the system, then the DWP accepts that. He said that the EBR is a good example of that, as it has proved harder to run than originally anticipated but the DWP will use the evidence from the EBR to improve ESA. There are no financial limits from the Treasury, and no consideration of cost will be used to decide which descriptors are the best to use.

Sue mentioned concern about targets. Mr Hoban said DWP set no targets. He said they are only concerned about quality. If an assessor was an outlier (ie putting more claimants into the Support Group or WRAG than colleagues) then it is not that the assessor is an “outlier” that matters but that a need to check his or her assessments are right was all that mattered; if the assessments were correct then it doesn’t matter that the assessor was an outlier. Mr Hoban was very clear that targets are the wrong thing, and that they have no place in a credible system. We suggested that Atos are using “norms” either way, even if not part of DWP guidance and it might be worth re-iterating with Atos that this shouldn’t be the case. 

Sam mentioned concern that assessors are saying they are told to presume zero points and award points grudgingly. We want to see an inquisitorial approach, not adversarial. Sue said that the balance of comments from claimants is that the HCPs are trying to trip people up. but maybe all that is needed is to remind Atos that their role is not to be denying people points or benefits.

Mr Hoban agreed with this and said that this is what DWP guidance to HCPs recommends; the HCPs are to gather the evidence as it is. Sue pointed out that whilst this is indeed the written DWP guidance, anecdotal evidence from HCPs suggests that this is not the case during in-house training. Again, taking this issue up with Atos may be helpful. Mr Hoban appeared to agree to this. Mr Hoban mentioned that WCA is just one part of the information that decision makers use; this is why Decision Makers do increasingly disagree with HCPs based on other evidence although we don’t know what the ‘right’ number would be given that high levels of disagreement would also be concerning. 
Sue said how pleased we were to discover that such a high proportion of claims were successful based on paper assessments alone, with no need for a stressful and costly WCA. She suggested this should be even more widespread and almost certainly could be if more GPs returned evidence in time. Mr Hoban appeared to agree that this was the best way of conducting assessments where possible. 
On Mandatory Reconsideration, leaving people without income we pushed very hard, coming back at Mr Hoban several times to try to get some kind of compromise. We argued that it isn’t consistent to give claimants 4 weeks to get evidence in when the DWP has as long as they want for reconsideration. Mr Hoban indicated some agreement and agreed to review this 6 months He said they need to see how it works in practice. We argued that in the meantime people are going without money, and would it not be better to give them this money during those first 6 months, and then review it. However Mr Hoban felt that as it was appropriate for these people to sign on for JSA, then there is no poverty issue. Sue pointed out that many would not be able to do that – herself included as her husband works. They would simply lose nearly £500 a month while they waited indefinitely.
Stef pointed out concerns over the appropriateness of Jobcentre Plus conditionality agreements, and the concerns over the high percentage of successful appeals that were not borderline but instead had been severely under-awarded points initially when they should have very easily got over the 15 points mark. Sue pointed out that a very high % (16%) of Fit for Work decisions are inaccurate and that few disagreed that the system is flawed as it stands.
Unfortunately, Mr Hoban still insisted that these people had been found fit for work and it was reasonable to expect them to make other arrangements, time was running out and we had to leave the issue.
We devoted the final part of the meeting to arguing very robustly that Mr Hoban consider an alternative to WCAs that would be developed by all online groups in unity. We requested a follow-up meeting to present this alternative to ESA/WCA designed by the online disabled community. Mr Hoban agreed that he is very willing to listen to constructive and fully-worked out proposals. He was concerned that given the difficulties that large charities experienced in designing workable descriptors, that we need to be aware of the challenge we have set ourselves. He did however say that if someone has an alterative that works, that is fully worked out and includes an indication of why it would be effective, then that alternative should be presented. Michael Meacher pushed him on a follow up meeting. Mr Hoban concluded that if an alternative could be put together, they are always willing – including this meeting – to listen to ideas that are constructive.”
 
So, we did our very best for you all. We felt quite pleased that the meeting had been so constructive and we had managed to cover so much in the short time available. If nothing else, some of the clarifications make it easier to know where things stand and what changes the government are considering in the short term to make the system safer and fairer.
Everyone now has the chance to design a better system that is robust and which works and the knowledge that the minister will at least consider our approach.