The introduction of the new employment and support allowance (ESA) has raised enormous anxiety among service users. Many fear they will be dragooned off benefits into any kind of job to achieve the government's political target of "a million off incapacity benefits". The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), however, has been reassuring in its full page advertisements, where the emphasis is on "personalised support" and "financial help".
There's the same encouraging message of "working for a better life" on its website, with feel-good "real-life stories of people who have been helped back to work". It may be helpful, though, to draw the department's attention to another kind of real life story which is not only disturbing, but highlights the massive gap there can be between the policy theory and the practical reality of the ESA.
I need to stress that this is a true story, from the horse's mouth. I say this because even though from my own experience of living on benefits, I have learned some harsh lessons about what the system can be like, I still find it hard to believe myself. Such is the gulf between the lofty rhetoric and how the system can operate.
Mr A, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, had been unable to work for several months and had been living off his savings and credit card. He was receiving the highest rate of disability living allowance (DLA). He was referred to a social worker who helped him apply for ESA. The ESA form can be downloaded – it's an option offered - and the social worker did this and printed it off for Mr A, as he did not have a computer. He was very ill, so they completed it slowly together. He wasn't well enough to do the form on the phone, Jobcentre Plus's own preference.
The form was completed carefully by the experienced and qualified social worker, who sent it off accompanied by the evidence required, for example, a doctor's sick certificate. Mr A then had to be admitted to a hospice as his condition worsened. The social worker went to see his partner, who explained that the form had been sent back, with the accompanying evidence, saying he should make the claim by phone. The partner duly phoned up Jobcentre Plus, at the patient's bedside and tried to go through the answers with them, checking with her partner, who was too ill to talk on the phone himself, both of them getting very distressed.
At this point she was told: "He's going to have to go in to the local Jobcentre Plus office." Telling people "it may be necessary for you to attend an interview at your local Jobcentre Plus" appears to be part of a standard telephone script. Mr A's partner knew where the office was and said she could get him there in a wheelchair, but wouldn't be able to get him up the stairs. Could someone come down the stairs to speak to him? She was very agitated. He died shortly afterwards. He never received the benefit.
The ESA form, which was completed and sent, asks if the claimant receives DLA. The social worker answered YES to this. It also asks if a form DS1500 accompanies the claim and if the "special rules apply" (to fast-track the claim). DS1500 is the doctor's report which states that the claimant is expected to have six months or less to live. In both cases the answer clearly given was YES. Despite being given full information about this, the form was returned unprocessed and the claimant and his partner subjected to this unjustified, inappropriate, insensitive and painful process. Hardly a case of someone who could be expected to be "prepared to work", yet hardly a case of "personalised support" or "financial help" either.
Much more focus must be placed on the efficient working of this new benefit. Clearly more needs to be done if staff and Jobcentre Plus are truly to support claimants' right to work, rather than merely penalise their need for support.
• Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University.
Jo Public Blog, 10th March 2009