A protest took place outside Nottingham Assessment Centre on Wednesday, as part of a nationwide day of action against the government’s privatisation of Work Capability Assessments (WCA).
The WCA is designed to test whether a benefit claimant is ‘fit for work’ and anyone who is claiming an Employment and Support Allowance is required to take the assessment.
The tests, introduced by the last Labour Government and expanded under the coalition, are controversially administered by Atos, a French IT firm.
“We want to be assessed by medically trained professionals, preferably our own GPs”.
Protestors cited Department of Work and Pension figures showing that 10,600 claimants died within 6 weeks of being found ‘fit for work’ between January and November 2011.
The protest organiser, operating under the pseudonym ‘Singing Bird Artist’, deplored the privatisation of the WCA. She said: “We want to be assessed by medically trained professionals, preferably our own GPs”.
“At least three Nottingham people who have committed suicide as a result of being unable to cope with having their benefits removed”.
‘Singing Bird’, who suffers from fibromyalgia, said the protesters are motivated by the cases of “at least three Nottingham people who have committed suicide as a result of being unable to cope with having their benefits removed”.
One protestor, Gary, told Impact about his experiences with the WCA: “I had a heart attack and bypass and I was sent to have a WCA. They refused me benefits. Afterwards I had a stroke, which saw me lose the use of my left arm for a year.
I was sent for a second assessment where I was asked to raise my arm above my head. This was medically impossible, but they failed me, saying I had ‘refused’ to cooperate with the test.”
“It took 10 minutes and they didn’t even ask about my illness. My disability benefits were removed and I was found ‘fit for work’.”
Government figures show that 36% of WCA decisions are overturned. However Gary, whose own appeal took 20 months to process, felt that the assessments “function to remove people from Employment Support Allowance and save the government £30 to £40 a week” for every claimant removed from benefits.
Tracey Davies suffers from depression and Raynaud’s Syndrome, a circulatory condition exasperated by cold and emotional stress. She told Impact about her experiences with WCAs:
“I came down, I was asked to sit on a couch, she tapped my knee. She asked me to pull her thumb. Then I was out the door. It took 10 minutes and they didn’t even ask about my illness. My disability benefits were removed and I was found ‘fit for work’.”
“There have been lots of cases of people being pushed out of their wheelchairs and told to get jobs.”
Tracey has to live on £62 a week during these periods. “I can’t pay rent, I can’t pay bills…Even with food banks you need vouchers from the social, and getting there costs money. If I do that it means my son doesn’t get lunch money” she said.
Another protestor, Trev Fairminer, believes that a cultural stigma has attached itself to people on disability benefits: “Disability hate crimes have increased, we know that. There have been lots of cases of people being pushed out of their wheelchairs and told to get jobs. It can be difficult for people to go into pubs because they get teased.”
“This is a shadow of what I can do. This is a shadow of what I used to be.”
‘Singing Bird’ herself said that she was left distressed and “shakey” after a radio exchange with Conservative MP Mark Spencer on Wednesday morning. When she had told the presenter that she can sometimes only manage 10 minutes work a day Spencer jokingly congratulated her organisational skills.
‘Singing Bird’ felt that Spencer, who in 2010 was revealed to have claimed £8,295 for 120 hours work as a councillor, lacked understanding of the realities of disabled life.
“This is a shadow of what I can do. This is a shadow of what I used to be” she said.
A spokesman for Atos Healthcare told the Croydon Guardian: “We absolutely respect people’s right to peaceful protest, and we are well aware that being assessed for benefit entitlement can be a difficult experience. However, lobbying against Atos will have no impact on welfare policy.