ALMOST two thousand sickness benefit claimants from Londonderry were given no recognition of any illness in ‘work capability assessments’ since June 2011.
The figure, revealed by Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland this week, does not represent the total number of people to lose their benefits, just those who scored absolutely no points in their assessment.
Local MLA Mark H Durkan, who had been quizzing Mr McCausland on the ‘work capability assessments’, said the 1,850 total represents somewhere around a fifth of all sickness claimants in Londonderry.
He said the figure shows the “zeal” with which those conducting the assessments are recommending people lose their sickness benefits.
Mr Durkan also believes there is probably a very high percentage of these assessments being overturned on appeal, but expressed profound dismay that the Social Development Minister could not provide him with an exact total despite his questioning.
The local SDLP MLA also called into question the methods with which people are assessed for work capability, pointing to the lack of prior medical evidence being used despite the inherent difficulty assessing mental illnesses or conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
He said: “Unfortunately I would have liked them to have provided me with the number of people who scored zero points and then had that decision overturned on appeal. They say they don’t have the information, but I think that is not the case.
“In general there is a turnaround of around 25 per cent (of people being told they are fit to work, then having the decision overturned on appeal) but I wanted to find out how many of the zero-pointers were having their decisions overturned. I believe it would be in and around 10 to 15 percent.
“In these zero-point cases, there is no recognition at all of people’s illnesses – for me the figure just displays the zeal of those carrying out the assessments to mark people down.
“I am not surprised by the figure because I have had people into the office with serious mental illnesses who are getting zero points, but when the proper medical notes are made available they get the decision overturned.
“Those carrying out the assessments can be a healthcare professional, but that does not necessarily mean they are a doctor and they do not use the proper medical notes.
“Mental illness is so prevalent here and it can be difficult to ascertain if someone has mental health issues. That is why prevalence should be given to previous medical evidence.
“For instance, with Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, there are different degrees. With MS, you can be grand one day and then in your bed for about a week afterwards. The assessment is a snapshot. That is why such a high percentage are overturned on appeal.”
Mr Durkan’s sentiment echoes that expressed by the Foyle MS Society, who have previously warned of the worry faced by many of their clients at the prospect of losing much-needed sickness benefits.
Mr Durkan believes the situation could be about to become a lot worse when the new Personal Independence Payments are brought in to replace the Disability Living Allowance.
He said: “With the new PIPs coming in instead of DLA, it’s been pointed out already that there is going to be 20 per cent spent less than on DLA – so it is already predicated on cutting expenditure.”