Campaigner had benefits docked despite inaccessible workshop


newslatestA disabled campaigner had more than £70 a week of her disability benefit stripped from her for three months because she could not attend a back-to-work workshop that a government assessment had already concluded would be inaccessible to her.

Catherine Hale repeatedly wrote to Work Programme provider Seetec to explain that she would not be able to attend the compulsory workshops unless they were made accessible to her.

Hale is the author of a well-received review – supported by Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform, and endorsed by 18 other organisations – which found that the back-to-work support provided to disabled people by the government actually pushes them further away from the job market.

Hale was passed to Seetec for employment support after she was placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance (ESA), following a work capability assessment (WCA) in 2011.

She had surveyed more than 500 disabled people in the WRAG for her report, and half the respondents said their disability-related support needs were “not acknowledged or addressed at all”.

The majority said there had been no formal assessment of their health condition when they started on the Work Programme, while support providers were not routinely given a copy of their WCA report.

The workshops Hale was asked to attend were nearly a mile from the nearest public transport, and lasted almost four hours, but her WCA had concluded that she was unable to walk more than 200 metres and could not sit or stand for more than 30 minutes.

Despite that assessment, she was told to attend the series of workshops five times, and each time wrote back to Seetec and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to explain that she would need to have taxi fares reimbursed and to have a quiet area so she could lie down to rest.

Each time, Seetec ignored her letter and reported her to DWP for “failure to participate”, and each time she wrote to DWP within the necessary seven days to explain why she could not attend, reminding the department of the conclusions of its own WCA report.

The fifth time Seetec asked Hale to attend the workshop, on 18 March this year, she was “sanctioned” and had her ESA reduced from £118.73 to £47.03 per week, because – according to DWP – she had not given a good reason for not attending.

Because of her health condition and other personal circumstances – and because DWP failed to write to her – she only found out she had been sanctioned when she called DWP in mid-June about another issue. She finally received a letter on 2 July admitting that the sanction had been imposed.

She should have had the sanction removed on 24 March when she took part in a telephone review, but her Seetec adviser failed to inform DWP for three months that she had “re-engaged” with the Work Programme.

Following an appeal – known as a “mandatory reconsideration request” – the six-day sanction has now been lifted, and her benefits repaid.

Meanwhile, she had created her own work experience – in the absence of anything offered by Seetec – by writing her report while working from home at the “very slow pace dictated by my health condition”, and with support from Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform.

More than four in five of those surveyed for her report said they had felt anxious or very anxious about losing benefits if they were not able to carry out mandatory activities like the workshops Hale had to attend.

She said: “I shared this acute anxiety for over a year, but I didn’t believe the system could be so stacked against me that the DWP would effectively punish me for a disability recorded in its own assessment. The sanction caused me a period of depression and anxiety.”

Hale took legal action against DWP, but was told by her lawyers that although she would probably be offered an out-of-court settlement for discrimination, she was likely to have to agree to a confidentiality clause, so she dropped the case so she could speak out publicly.

She said: “I would rather forgo the compensation money and raise awareness instead of what appears to be systemic discrimination towards people in the ESA WRAG.

“My research found that the overwhelming impact of being in the WRAG was acute anxiety, deteriorating health and wellbeing and reduced confidence about work.

“There is a shocking human story behind the very poor job outcomes for disabled people on the Work Programme and it needs to be told.”

So far, neither Seetec nor DWP have been able to comment.

11 September 2014