When it comes to the government’s treatment of disabled people, we are now all too familiar with the punitive “fit-for-work” tests, the widely scorned assessment that determines who’s eligible for out of work sickness benefits and who’s not. But the story of Andy Davis – a disabled 55-year-old currently struggling through the endless hoops of the jobcentre – gives a stark insight into what is often obscured: what happens next.
Davis – a former oil rig labourer – had his leg almost completely severed in an accident at work 20 years ago. As he’s got older, the impact of the injury has taken its toll and he struggles to walk. “Every step requires concentration,” he tells me from his sheltered accommodation in Merseyside. “I either wince all day or doze off from the painkillers.”
The damage to his leg is severe enough to mean he’s been given a lifetime award of Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit – and this year his doctor told him he’s not physically able to hold down a job. Regardless, in May, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ruled Davis “fit to work”. Like every disabled or chronically ill person rejected for out-of-work sickness benefits, that means he has no choice but to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) and look for work instead.
“When I got the assessment result letter, I went to the jobcentre and asked the adviser behind the desk, ‘Who on earth is going to employ somebody with a GP’s diagnosis as ‘unfit for work’?” Davis says. “The answer came lightning quick: ‘Nobody.’”
The adviser then told him that he didn’t have to tell prospective employers about the GP note or his leg, he adds. Davis now has to spend 35 hours per week searching for a job. Or he will have his benefit sanctioned.
The routine is as pointless as it is disheartening. He spends all day on Universal Jobmatch – the government’s much-maligned website for jobseekers – only to find work he’s not qualified for (teacher, nurse) or jobs he can’t physically do because they request fitness or strength (scaffolder, postroom worker). Each Monday or Friday – sometimes both – he has to get himself to a meeting with a jobcentre adviser and find a way to explain why he hasn’t found a job.
“I fear for my sanity,” he says. “I’m being instructed to mislead potential employers and spend 35 hours per week – compulsorily – applying for jobs I have no chance of obtaining. Or starve.”
This is the reality for the disabled and chronically ill people who, found “fit for work”, are then – to use Davis’s words – “thrown back into the main JSA pool”. Judged by the system as not disabled enough for disability unemployment benefits – but too disabled to have a fair chance in the job market.
There are two (related) issues at play here: government “fit-for-work” tests are routinely, inaccurately judging disabled people as not in need of out-of-work sickness benefits (as Davis puts it, “My doctor’s opinion can be legally ignored by the DWP”); and that they – as well as those disabled people who, with tailored support, could work – are being abandoned to a JSA system that assumes they are fit and healthy.
Davis tells me he has asked the jobcentre if he could see a disability employment adviser to get some specialist help. “‘Oh we don’t do them any more’, my adviser said,” he explains. Instead, he was booked on to a generic two-week employability course and told to update his CV.
The Conservatives are presiding over repellent rhetoric around disability and worklessness, but are less forward in doing anything to deal with the complexities of the real problem. On the contrary, they’re introducing policies that are proven to push disabled people further from work, and have cut the specialist disability employment advisers people like Davis need by over 60% in jobcentres across the country.
With little fuss, the DWP’s long-promised disability and employment white paper has just been quietly shelved. It’s hard to believe any answers are coming. Theresa May’s cabinet changes mean that Damian Green is the third work and pensions secretary in the space of a year.
Meanwhile, Davis is anxious about the future. JSA – barely £70 a week – is not designed as a long-term income but for him, it may have to be. “I’m sick and tired of the hunger,” he says. “It’s emotionally crippling.” His hopes rest on the DWP’s mandatory reconsideration overturning the “fit-for-work” ruling (after seven weeks, he’s had no word from them). If the DWP upholds the decision, Davis will have no choice but to apply for jobs or be sanctioned.
“I actually found myself out practising normal walking yesterday, seeing how long I could keep it up,” he says. “It’s a horrific situation to be in.”