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 Tuesday, 22 January 2019
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The Fit for Work Test Fails Mentally Ill People and May Increase Homelessness


23 September 2013


The Fit for Work Test Fails Mentally Ill People and May Increase Homelessness


“Mr X has suffered from anxiety and depression for about 10 years…he describes panic when in crowds, a lack of concentration and motivation. One day a week he stays in bed all day. He has had counselling and seen a psychiatrist previously. His sister cooks most of his meals. He describes panic attacks and paranoid ideas for most of the time.

No points are accepted under any of the mental health test descriptors. As a result Mr X is no longer assessed as having limited capability for work and therefore is not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance”.

This is an extract from a DWP report received last year by a client whom I now support, cancelling his sickness benefit following his fitness for work test, the controversial work capability assessment (WCA). Incredibly, despite this and additional facts reported by Mr X such as his mum doing his shopping for him as he gets too anxious in the supermarket, fear of using the phone and sometimes only going out when it’s dark, he is now assessed as being fit for work and thus will be transferred to Job Seeker’s Allowance. As such, if he doesn’t demonstrate that he is “able and available for work” and “actively seeking work”, he will have sanctions imposed upon his benefit and, eventually, it will be stopped - with a knock-on effect on his housing benefit.    

Fortunately, with support from me, Mr X is appealing this decision. He is not alone in this - since the WCA was introduced in 2008;  the number of appeals against decisions has risen to 465,000 in 2012/13. These appeals cost the state about £50 million a year [1] and 42% of appeals are successful.[2] Yet Atos, the French company contracted to carry out these assessments, continues to assess people with mental health problems at a rate of 6,000 people a week.   

The WCA requires applicants to gather extensive medical evidence from their GP or other health professionals, explaining why they are unfit for work. The DWP does not have an obligation on behalf of those with mental health problems to ensure that this sort of evidence is collected and taken into account. But if you’re hearing voices, can’t leave the house/make a phone call due to anxiety, or confined to bed due to depression, gathering these documents is an almost impossible task. Additionally, it requires them to understand and be able to explain the nature of their condition to the people conducting their assessment. As Dick Ackworth (whose son has bipolar disorder) of Rethink’s "I Agree with Dick" petition ( writes: “I really fear for other people going through the Work Capability Assessment who don’t have anyone to support them – I think people must just give up, and end up in an awful situation” 

The WCA has demonstrably failed mentally ill people. It contributes towards exacerbating people’s mental health problems, through the stress of being told they have to look for work, or going through the complicated process of lodging an appeal. Likewise it may potentially impact on the levels of homelessness amongst the mentally ill, as this not-fit-for-purpose test slashes the benefits of some of the most vulnerable members of society. The experience of being homeless itself then worsens any existing mental health problems. 

In May 2013 a court ruled what campaigners have been arguing, that work capability assessments significantly disadvantage people with mental health problems. A tribunal ruled that the DWP has failed to make reasonable adjustments to ensure people with mental health conditions are treated fairly. The DWP has agreed to bring in new providers alongside Atos staff and to retrain existing staff. However, focussing on the company which carries out the test may distract attention from the policy it is merely paid to implement – the government’s drive to reduce the number of people claiming sickness benefits.

[1] The Guardian 22nd May 2013, Amelia Gentleman. [2] The Guardian, 22nd July 2013 Amelia Gentleman.


Lindsey Gibbs, Supported Housing Officer, Mental Health Services


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