ESA Reassessment U-Turn Is A Small Victory But The Fight Goes On
It has finally happened: the government has announced it will scrap the retesting of chronically ill and disabled benefit claimants.
Instead of being forced to prove their illness or disability every six months, many will now continue to receive the out-of-work sickness benefit, employment support allowance (ESA), automatically. The exact beneficiaries of the policy are still to be decided – criteria will be drawn up with health professionals – but it is thought thousands will qualify, including people with severe Huntington’s, autism or a congenital heart condition.
It’s difficult to comprehend what this means for the ill and disabled put through the system or indeed, the sheer scale of suffering that has led us to this point. Two years ago it was discovered that more than a third of people with degenerative conditions – some of the very people who may now finally be helped – were having their benefit cut because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deemed that they had somehow recovered enough to look for work.
For the best part of six years, severely ill or disabled people have been tested and retested, often to have their only income taken from them.
Imagine it – you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis. You’ve had to give up your job and, on top of the pain and the exhaustion, you can’t pay your mortgage or afford to put the heating on because the government says you’re not really ill. This is now the reality of living in Britain if you’re disabled or chronically sick – where desperation is the new norm.
Most days I receive an email, letter or tweet from a disabled reader in despair. They’ve been given notice for their fifth assessment for ESA in less than three years and are too tired to understand the paperwork. Their benefits are late so they have not been able to eat for four days and social care cuts mean there’s no one to help them get out of the house to get a voucher for a food bank. Or they’ve been found “fit to work” but can barely get out of bed and are suicidal because there’s nothing they can do.
For thousands with a disability, it has become a part of everyday life to be anxious, desperate and scared. That isn’t their illness or disability inflicting that on them but the people in power who should be helping them.
As they settle into party conference week, the Conservatives will proudly announce the abolition of retesting for some ESA claimants. Theresa May can distance herself from the era of George Osborne’s “skivers and shirkers” and Iain Duncan Smith’s memory. The message of this policy change will be that this government is the epitome of compassionate conservatism – and proof that all is well for the long-term ill now. In reality, the Tories have pulled back on one part of an assessment they themselves accelerated, and introduced a policy change that anyone with an ounce of empathy or common sense knew years ago was needed.
No one should believe this is over. The Tories have simply fixed one piece of an altogether broken disability benefits system. The government has still made no effort to address the test itself: the notorious work capability assessment used by the DWP to determine who is eligible for out-of-work sickness benefits in the first place. Nor has gone it back on its impending move to cut part of the benefit by £30 a week – when it is fully aware that, even on the current rate, disabled people are having to skip meals.
At the same time, the retesting of chronically ill or disabled people for another key benefit – personal independence payments – remains, and thousands with unchanging or degenerative conditions are preparing to be put through that pointless assessment once again.
Saturday’s announcement will not undo the suffering of the disabled people already forced through the reassessment system. It will not take back the anxiety of sleepless nights or fix the health that has been damaged. And, most painfully, it’s too late to help the people who have died.
But we must take heart from it as a significant U-turn and, vitally, one we can use to galvanise energy for what more needs to be done. The pressure that campaigners, opposition parties, campaigners and the media have put on the Tories is working. Disabled and chronically ill people have had a victory today. The fight carries on.