|Anti-cuts demonstrators picket ATOS (from the Guardian website)|
The disability activists and advice websites recommend you include all the relevant paperwork with your form - your GP is supposedly sent a letter asking for their opinion, but apparently many do not complete and return them - pressure of work I suppose. When my form turned up a few weeks ago I had nothing new to send them ... I would cross my fingers and hope that this doesn't matter as I'm obviously (well to anyone who has bothered to take notice) not getting any better, however as crossing my fingers would probably set off a painful bout of cramp in my hands I won't bother.
I've just retweeted a post from Sue Marsh - the wonderful Diary of a Benefit Scrounger lady - which links to an article she has written that appears on the Guardian website - that's where the picture above comes from. It's all about the problems with the Work Capability Assessments and I won't go into detail here, but please go and read it yourselves. The article contains a variety of links to supporting articles, I particularly (enjoyed is not the right word, although it seems to flow here, it really doesn't do justice to the way the piece made my skin crawl) read with interest the transcript of the questioning of witnesses for the Work and Pension Committee in 2011 where the then Minister of State for Employment, Chris Grayling, outlines the reasoning behind re-examining everyone on Incapacity Benefit and moving them onto Employment Support Allowance. I haven't read it all yet (it is very long) but by the time I'd read and reread him stating that people will get support to get back to work I had to stop and calm down and write this blog post to try to get my feelings straight.
I have personal experience of this exercise ... when my sick pay from work ran out I applied for and received the first (assessment) stage of Employment Support Allowance, I was very happy to get something, coming from a very work orientated family background (if you don't work you will starve and it will be your own fault) it felt reassuring that the government accepted that I couldn't work through no fault of my own. I took my box file of medical records to the first appointment with ATOS in 2010 and was put into the Work Related Activity Group.
Bear in mind that at this point I was actually still employed and in the process of being 'terminated' as Sheffield Hallam University so kindly put it in their letters. The Occupational Health doctor at SHU had recommended I be given early retirement due to ill health, but the pension authority doctor had disregarded that and stated I would get better with some exercise therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (ah, one of those doctors who doesn't believe in the side effects of Crohn's Disease or in Chronic Fatigue or Fibromyalgia and who had actually NEVER met/examined me personally). SHU, who had done everything in their power since I first became ill in 2004 'to make reasonable adjustments' to my working as recommended by the Occupational Health people, wouldn't/couldn't employ me any longer ... so who was actually going to give me a job then?
I assumed (stupidly) that I would be given some help and advice on getting a nice little part time job that I could manage - no more than three hours a day, with a very short journey to work, or home working, for no more than three days a week and with an employer who didn't mind me being incapable of anything at all for days on end if I made a mistake in the 'pacing' I was trying to work out and overstretched myself. Ha, dream on!
I had set up my own 'plan' the previous year when it became apparent I was going to have to leave SHU - I had applied and been accepted for a PGCE at the Barnsley campus of Huddersfield Uni. I hoped I might be able to get some part time work teaching IT or history or something similar. I see in the report from the second ATOS meeting (the one with the nurse where she asks you the same questions the doctor had already asked the month before) that I was also considering voluntary work to attempt to work out what exactly kind of and amount of work I was capable of.
I started to have the monthly meetings at the Job Centre - I was still technically employed by SHU who were having trouble getting rid of me as, having taken advice from knowledgeable friends I was refusing to resign. I wanted that pension or alternatively redundancy due to changes in working conditions ... ah yes, while I'd been off sick they had moved my whole team to an office over a mile away from the railway station and the rest of the Uni, my commute had just added another bus journey and there were no 'suitable adjustments' that could be made to assist me in that.
The Job Centre lady applauded my good sense in trying to retrain as a teacher and basically put me on the back burner - she even offered to interview me by phone every month until I pointed out that as part of my rehabilitation it was useful to have an excuse to come into town every now and then or I'd never leave the house. She thought voluntary work was a good idea but gave me no advice as to how to find any. She did advise me to apply for Disability Living Allowance - which was a daft suggestion - of course I didn't get it, I was nowhere near limited enough in my mobility. Box ticking I suppose.
Things did not go well with my Uni course, frequent absences from my placement when I was ill led to complications with lesson planning and caused inconvenience to my mentor and the team at the Adult Education Centre where I was working. I could manage the academic work, I could just about do that at home in my own time, but I was rapidly falling behind in the teaching hours required to qualify. I was still being seen by the Job Centre advisor and (you'll never believe it but it's true) still technically employed by SHU!!!
Then they asked me to go for another ATOS medical March 2011 ... I had recently lost my father, I was getting behind on my Uni work and I was being pressured by my placement to do more and more hours ... I was struggling with SHU to try to get some closure on the whole redundancy issue (they had 'forgotten' to include the holiday pay I was owed) ... I was stressed and very ill. I took my husband along for support (that's physical support he literally had to hold me up!) ... he was shocked at the brevity of the interview, he hadn't really understood my explanation of the system and he (and his mum) expected that I would now be put into the Support Group as I had proven I couldn't work, not even part time as demonstrated by my failure to keep up the required hours on my placement.
Nope, they still put me in the WRAG. I had to go back to the lady at the Job Centre again and explain about my failed course and my redundancy fight and everything ... at least I still got the ESA money ... she couldn't help me - she said she only needed to see me every three months as nothing was going to change - er? What about the help to get me back into work that as a person in the WRAG I was supposed to get?
Another ATOS exam in September 2011, why are they getting closer together? Do they think I'm likely to have got better? I wish someone would tell me if that's the case! WRAG again ... and no Job Centre appointments this time. What? So ATOS think I'm capable of some work but the DWP can't see the point in trying to 'support' me ... if I'm that ill why aren't I in the Support Group?
Then it all became clear ... the letter arrived informing me of the changes to ESA which we would be coming into force in April 2012. I'd well and truly had my year's worth of ESA and as a person in the WRAG I wouldn't be getting any more. There was no need to try to find me work or give me advice - I wouldn't be getting any money from them, so I was 'off their books' as it were.
Come April 2012 the big fat form for claiming Income Related ESA dropped through the door, no point filling that in, the OH works full time. Meanwhile SHU's dithering with my holiday pay meant that my tax had gone all wrong and I now owe the Inland Revenue over £500 that I haven't got.
No money ... an absence of cash, an inability to buy books or music, or even worse clothes and shoes without asking the OH for the money. Or personal products, or a photocopy in the Archives or a 50p tea/coffee sub at the Local History Group ...
I am ill ... I can't work ... when I overdo it like I did last weekend I can't even cook and clean for the OH to 'earn' my keep. All because a man with a computer says I am capable of (or will be capable of) some kind of work at some point provided I am given 'suitable support'.
That'll be the support and advice I haven't had for well over twelve months now ...
I rang them at the beginning of this year to just check they were actually paying my National Insurance contributions as I hadn't heard anything for so long. I was assured that I was still in the WRAG and still covered. Then in June the big ESA50 arrived ... will an 'invitation' to an assessment be following soon? It's been six weeks since I sent the form back and I've heard nothing so far.
Please ATOS and the DWP, this time either declare me too ill to work and give me back the self respect you've torn away from me in your 'assessments' over the last three years or make some serious attempts to find me a job that allows me hold my head up and buy some new underwear. Because I'm fed up of this ... and everything.