On the 3rd December 2012 the DWP announced that people who had been through the exceptionally tough Atos work capability assessment and found to be not fit for work could be mandated indefinitely onto the work programme or have their income sanctioned. This new rule applied to people in the work related activity group. People, who according to the government, should be expected to recover within twelve months. This group includes the greatest proportion of sick and disabled people receiving ESA. The support group is so difficult to get into that it excludes many of those with degenerative and fluctuating illnesses, chronic conditions that have gone on for years and cases of terminal illness when they are expected to live longer than six months. Of course you'd want to spend your final months doing some work experience to improve your future job prospects wouldn't you?
It's plain to see that the work related activity group is fast becoming indistinguishable from job seekers allowance. Coalition politicians have stopped referring to it as a disability benefit and the media has frequently included the sick and disabled people in the group as people found fit to work. The benefit was also one of those capped at 1% and it will not increase in line with inflation. Dividing sick and disabled people up with a points scoring system into two groups, has always seemed to be flawed and unfair to me. If you're too sick to work, then you're too sick to work. How difficult can that fact be to understand?
I'll start by explaining a little about myself so that you might better understand the situation I am now facing because of this rule. Back in March I had a face-to-face assessment at my home with an Atos doctor. It was a tense and anxious wait for the brown envelope because the assessment is a lottery. No one can predict what their decision will be. When the dreaded letter finally arrived in the middle of May I didn't even realise it was the decision. Nowhere did it refer to a decision, or contain words such as, "we have made a decision" or "you have been placed in the work related activity group", or any reference to the assessment at all. What they did send was a leaflet about appealing a job seekers allowance decision. Confused? Yes! It took two phone calls and a week to find out what it was they were telling me.
In the meantime, I received a letter from my local job centre demanding that I attend a work related interview at a date in the near future or lose my benefits. I say local, but it's not the job centre in my own town, but a bigger one nearby in a busy shopping centre. My problem is that I have agoraphobia. I haven't been able to walk into that place in over a decade. I couldn't go there even if someone trusted went with me. I'm also terrified of telephone calls and speaking with people I don't know. I get worked up into an anxious panic, my mind becomes blank, I can't think, I feel unreal and floaty and words won't come. I also get panicked speaking to my own family and friends on the telephone, but that's another matter. The point is, I suffer from severe anxiety. I can't just have a nice meal out, take a trip or a pleasant walk down the street, go shopping on my own, get a haircut, meet new people, sit and socialise comfortably, attend family celebrations (and funerals) and sit with the family around the table at Christmas. I don't want sympathy, I just want to emphasise that if I can't do all of the ordinary and enjoyable things in life, then how can I be expected to suddenly overcome my agoraphobia and anxiety and jump through hoops for the job centre? All of this was explained in thorough detail in the assessment forms, and what a demoralising depressing experience describing it was too. There were lots and lots of letters and reports included from the multitude of mental health team workers who have tried, and failed to cure me over the last fifteen years as proof that I was genuinely diagnosed and struggling to cope with anxiety on a daily basis.
I really didn't feel able to speak to the job centre adviser when they called, but I had no choice. Not knowing what to expect I was brave and listened to what she had to tell me. She was referring me to the work programme and if I didn't attend I would be sanctioned. She asked if I had a mortgage or paid rent. "No". It has been suggested that the job centre have targets for sanctions and I have been set up.
All of this has happened so quickly that my claim was still within the four week time period to make an appeal for the support group. What troubles me most is that I am now receiving nonsensical and threatening letters from A4E and the job centre to arrange a work experience placement even though I still had time to make my mind up whether to appeal or not. I will tell you that I have now sent in an appeal form. This had to be requested and posted to me, and I will also tell you that it does not contain any advice or reference about how to appeal an employment and allowance decision or even where to post it. Are they making this difficult on purpose? You have to wonder?
I think it's cruel to harass someone who isn't fit to work and who can't get out of the house without a great deal of support to attend a work placement when it's simply impossible. I have barely slept and I'm experiencing a lot of horrible anxiety symptoms. Rather than helping me they are making my condition much worse. I don't want to imagine the horrors of having a massive panic attack in a public place with strangers around. Last time that happened in a work environment, I spent the afternoon in A&E.
You also have to wonder if the government is simply denying that sickness and mental illness exists, unless you're so ill or disabled that you're bed bound or in a hospital. If time limiting ESA to 365 days doesn't get you, because you have a partner who will not only be expected to care for you if you haven't recovered quickly enough, but they'll be 100% responsible for supporting you too and you won't have this marvellous tailored support to get you back to work (a blessing). You will find yourself sick and with no independent income or state support whatsoever. If you don't have a partner, or your household has been means tested and found to be dirt poor, the constant harassment and never ending stress might force you to attempt to live off thin air, kindly relatives or just simply throw in the towel for good.
The work programme claims to support sick and disabled people into work. Politicians like to boast that it helps to find lots of jobs for this difficult group of people who face massive barriers to getting into the work place. It is failing miserably. Out of the 80,720 people on employment and support allowance who were attached to a work placement, 1,290 actually ended up with a 'job outcome'.*
There is no way that I can mentally or physically attend this work programme placement whatever they have planned for me. If I can't function in a supermarket or shop or any place unless my mother is with me at all times, how can I be expected to work there? At the moment I am ignoring the letters because I can't cope with them. I am now waiting for the one that tells me my benefit has been stopped.