Catherine Hale warned that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision-makers appeared to be adopting a “sanction first, ask questions later” approach to benefit claimants.
And she said that hundreds of thousands of other disabled people could be exposed to this discriminatory approach.
Hale 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.
Work Programme provider Seetec refused to act even though Hale repeatedly explained that the compulsory workshops were not accessible.
Hale had been 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) by Atos Healthcare in 2011.
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.
But she was still told to attend the workshops five times, and each time wrote to Seetec and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to explain she would need taxi fares reimbursed and a quiet area to 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 to explain her “good reason” for not attending.
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.
Following an appeal – known as a “mandatory reconsideration request” – the six-day sanction was eventually lifted, and her benefits repaid.
This week, DWP said it had backdated Hale’s benefits to when she began attending the Work Programme again, and she was now in the ESA support group – and so no longer forced to carry out work-related activity – following the submission of further medical evidence.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The Work Programme supports those claimants who face the most barriers to finding work and it has already helped more than 330,000 claimants into lasting work.
“All work-related activity for people on ESA on the Work Programme is designed to be appropriate to the person’s condition.
“Claimants who refuse this support as part of receiving their benefits could have their benefits reduced. However, this is only ever used as a last resort where there isn’t a good reason given.
“Claimants can ask for such a decision to be looked at again and hardship payments are available to support vulnerable claimants.”
A Seetec spokeswoman added: “We are aware of the issues raised and are working with the DWP to gain a clear understanding of [her]experience.”
But Hale was scathing about the DWP response.
She said: “The DWP has not explained why it disputed my ‘good reason’ and imposed the sanction on my benefits.
“I repeatedly gave them a very good reason for not attending Seetec workshops: according to my WCA I was incapable of accessing them and no adjustments were ever made by Seetec to enable me to attend, despite me requesting help.
“Decision-makers at the DWP appear to have adopted a policy of sanctioning first and asking questions later, if and when challenged.
“People claiming ESA are, by definition, vulnerable and many don’t have the personal resilience to challenge sanctions. Sanctions merely push us further down the spiral of poverty, ill health and social exclusion.”
Hale is the author of a 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.
She said hers was a “clear-cut case of discrimination on the grounds of my disability, and my report, based on a survey of 500 ESA WRAG claimants, published by Mind, suggests that it is occurring on a large scale.
“The absence of an apology for the injury to my health and well-being caused by this discrimination is disappointing.”
But she said her “greater concern” was for “hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the same predicament as I was”.
She said: “Many of them belong, like me, in the support group, but have been waiting a year or more for reassessment due to the DWP’s scandalous administrative chaos.
“It took direct pressure from my MP on Atos to get me reassessed where the DWP had failed.”
She added: “The aim of ESA was surely to support and empower disabled people, not to subject them to discrimination and punishment.”
2 October 2014