Doctors’ leaders could face protests over ‘fitness for work’ campaign snub


theweeksubDisabled activists could target the British Medical Association (BMA) with direct action protests after it refused to campaign for the government’s “fitness for work” test to be scrapped, despite an overwhelming vote by its members.

Doctors at the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) annual representative meeting (ARM) were almost unanimous in voting last June for the organisation to “demand” that the work capability assessment (WCA) – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – should end immediately.

The assessment has caused mounting anger among activists and disabled benefit claimants since its introduction in 2008, because of links with relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other deaths, among those who have been assessed.

And now, in an open letter, 26 doctors have spoken of their “dismay” at the failure of the BMA’s leadership to do anything “meaningful” to push for the end of the WCA.

The letter says: “As doctors on the front line witnessing daily the enormous avoidable suffering of many of our most vulnerable patients caught up in this Kafkaesque system of ‘disability assessment’, we find this failure to meaningfully engage unacceptable.”

The BMA claimed this week that it had held “constructive meetings” with the Disability Benefits Consortium and Citizens Advice, and had produced “numerous parliamentary briefings” for MPs and peers “pointing out the flaws with the current system”.

It claimed to have carried out media work to publicise its views, and to have raised the WCA issue directly with ministers.

It also pointed to its submission to the third review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

But a press release it published last September after submitting that response was far weaker than the ARM motion, and merely stated that it was “concerned” that “some of the most vulnerable and weakest in our society are not receiving the support that they need through the ESA”.

Disability News Service (DNS) has seen one BMA parliamentary briefing, published in January 2013 and sent to MPs and peers – although it is not clear how many – which did call for the WCA to end “with immediate effect”, but has not seen any other evidence of BMA attempts to push for the test to be scrapped.

A BMA spokesman said: “We have said the system needs to be replaced.

“We have put forward serious objections to the problems with this system which our members have asked us to do. We have said this system needs to be fundamentally changed. We feel we have made a huge amount of effort into trying to get those flaws addressed.”

But when asked for a “yes” or “no” as to whether the BMA had put “a huge amount of effort” into calling for the WCA to be scrapped, he declined to provide a “yes” or “no” answer.

The doctors also call on the BMA in their letter to “urgently” make known to “every GP in the country” the existence of two employment and support allowance (ESA) regulations, which they believe could avoid serious damage to the health of thousands of sick and disabled claimants.

The regulations state that a claimant should not be found fit for work (regulation 29), or placed in the work-related activity group (regulation 35), if such a decision would pose “a substantial risk” to their “mental or physical health”.

The 26 doctors say disabled people preparing for an appeal against being found fit for work should ask their GP to fill in the gaps in a short letter, which explains how the ESA decision poses a risk to their patient’s physical or mental health.

The letter warns the BMA that it could be guilty of negligence if it fails to alert GPs to the existence of the regulations.

But the BMA spokesman said: “Our understanding is that the role of GPs in the process is to provide a factual report based on information contained within the patient’s medical record and that anything beyond that is at the discretion of the individual GP.

“I am unclear on what grounds it could be viewed as negligence as we are not a regulatory body, but an independent trade union.”

John McArdle, a founding member of the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, which devised the core of last year’s BMA motion, said: “They are disregarding the views of their membership. It is simply not good enough and we are not going to take it.

“We have written letters [to the BMA leadership]and telephoned and we have been completely disregarded. We have been treated with contempt.”

McArdle said that if the BMA failed to pass on the information about the regulations, Black Triangle and other user-led groups would “take direct action against the BMA leadership” in order to “shame them into action”.

He said: “There are 252,000 registered doctors in the country and every one of them needs to know about these regulations.

“We are not going to be fobbed off about this. It is a disgrace that we should have to campaign so hard just to make known the law.”

9 May 2013