George Osbourne’s emergency budget was long feared by myself and many, many people who are reliant on welfare benefits to survive a long term illness or disability.
I cannot overstate the impact mentally and emotionally on me during the wait to find out if my life and health will get significantly worse under the new Tory government.
Since they came to power in May, the Tories were explicit about finding 12 billion cuts to welfare, the generic term to describe a cluster of benefits payable to people who are out of work.
I’m out of work because I have a disability called CFSME.
I’m claiming Employment and Support Allowance, the UK’s sickness benefit.
When you apply for ESA and after you are assessed by the Department for Work and Pensions in a Work Capability Assessment, only then do you find out if you are eligible to receive it.
It is not an easy process and it is not automatic.
If you are found eligible for ESA you are placed in either the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) or the Support Group.
The groups have different implications for a claimant.
The WRAG says: “Yes, you are too unwell to work, but you will be able to do work at some point in the future, so we are going to make you carry out work related activity in order to receive this benefit. You will also not receive this for longer than one year.”
The Support Group says: “You are too unwell to work and we aren’t going to expect you to carry out any work related activity. You can if you want to, but it’s not a condition of receiving this benefit. There’s no limit to the amount of time you are in receipt of this benefit.”
Both groups mean you receive additional payment above the rate of Job Seeker’s Allowance because being ill is costly. It’s a disability component. It comes out at around £30.00 per week above the rate of JSA.
I am in the Support Group.
I haven’t always been in the Support Group. After my Work Capability Assessment I was placed in the WRAG. I was told I’d be ‘fit to work within 3 months.’
After a legal appeal process with the DWP based on that decision being wrong, they moved me into the Support Group instead, I won this appeal after 9 months of fighting.
I am certain that I won because I used to work in the NHS and understood what medical evidence was required for a legal appeal to be successful. I was supported by a great legal advisor too and like Churchill, I never give up. 😉
Because I am in receipt of ESA I am also automatically eligible for Housing Benefit.
Both are how I keep a roof over my head, pay my bills, feed myself and pay for my counselling treatment.
There are plenty of other people with my disability out there who for whatever reason, have been placed in the WRAG, rather than the support group.
It’s easily done. It doesn’t mean that they are any more or less disabled than I am, either. Many times it means that they didn’t have the same legal help and advice I did, to win an appeal.
Being in the WRAG does NOT mean you are fit for work!
You still are sick, you still are ill and you still can’t go out to work. You will also have costs to help you with your illness and you can still be legally termed under the 2010 Equality Act as disabled.
Yesterday I listened to George Osbourne. I fully expected to hear that ESA was cut in entirety. It wasn’t. I escaped the worse of these cuts because I am in the support group, which was protected. I am, of course, relieved.
But there are people with CFS ME in the WRAG who are going to lose £30.00 per week and alongside being expected to do ‘work related activity’ are going to have additional costs of living due to their disability.
My disability is significant and long term.
It affects me every day and the real bullet is that unlike other long term illnesses, there are no pharmaceutical treatment programmes that can improve a sufferer’s symptoms and bring them back into their lives and workplaces.
Although some people improve once they have ME, I’m not one of them. My only treatment is to adapt my life around the symptoms of my illness.
Many people with ME in the WRAG will be the same.
The protest isn’t over. The ESA system is weighed against the claimant, not fit for purpose and a legal minefield.
Having processed the details of the budget yesterday, there is still much, much more to advocate for.
Here are some ideas:
1. MECFS automatically gets someone into the Support Group. This is because activity – as in ‘work related activity’ – is the thing that makes our illness worse. Research shows that if in the early days of the illness someone can rest entirely, the prognosis is better.
2. Better, clearer and more widely available advisory structures for people with ME when they are first applying for ESA.
3. Clearer published guidance around what people with ME need to write and say in the process of applying for ESA to enable a better assessment of their functioning and chance of successful appeal. I feel this can come from the ME Charities. Legal aid for benefit claimants was cut by the Coalition Government and disability rights organisations have widely had cuts to welfare advice also.
4. Better training of medical professionals, including GPs, to enable them to understand the condition MECFS. This will then enable them to produce better medical reports supporting a person’s application to ESA.
The process of applying for ESA rests on the quality of medical reports a claimant produces at every point in the process. Too many people are in the WRAG because their Doctor didn’t write a good enough report or because they didn’t understand that the system reflects your medical reports from A, first application, to Z, appeal.
5. NHS guidance as to the cost of producing medical reports for claimants by GPs. My GP charged me every time he produced a report. There is no centralized NHS guidance as to how much GP’s can charge for this service. My ESA appeal cost me over £100.00 in reports alone. For someone on benefits that’s prohibitive. I went into an overdraft to pay for it, which I then also paid bank charges for. This urgently needs looking at by the NHS.
6. Repeal of the decision that people in the WRAG will receive the same amount as people on JSA. This decision profoundly and disproportionately impacts on people who are ill. I am expecting a legal challenge to this on the horizon very soon.
7. Revision and overhaul of the current system of claiming ESA. The system is simply not fit for purpose. It is unsubtle, points focused and antithetical to what people need to experience in order to claim a benefit that they paid National Insurance contributions to receive. People claiming ESA are not well. Period. The system needs to adopt healthcare values and not political values in order for it to work for those who need it.
In the meanwhile, the fight and protest continues. I feel those of us with ME can start with supporting people in the WRAG who have taken the full brunt of these cuts.
It’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk.
© Lindy 2015