Recognition of Fibromyalgia as a Disability — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 15th January 2019.

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Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 9:57 am, 15th January 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Under the Equality Act 2010, only cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis are automatically recognised as disabilities. For all other debilitating conditions—including visual and hearing impairments, motor neurone disease, epilepsy, dementia and cardiovascular disease—in order to be defined as a disability under the Act, they must be proven to be a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the sufferer’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. No doubt many campaigners for the conditions I have named, as well as many others, would like those conditions to be automatically recognised as disabilities, but as the debate is on fibromyalgia I will concentrate on that.

Before I was elected to this place, I worked as a clinical scientist for the NHS and was also a workplace rep for Unite the union. As a rep I represented a colleague with fibromyalgia when the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust was formed by a merger of four hospitals: North Manchester Hospital, where we worked; the Royal Oldham Hospital; Fairfield General Hospital in Bury; and Rochdale Infirmary. Inevitably, as happens in a merger of that kind, services were rationalised across the four sites, with the main pathology lab where we worked relocated to the Royal Oldham Hospital.

My colleague had a great deal of difficulty with the relocation because of the extra traveling time and because she would no longer be working near her home. She was in constant pain and was just about managing to hold down a job working close to her home, without the added stress and pain of traveling an extra 14 miles every day. Sadly, her manager was unsympathetic and seemed to have difficulty in recognising that she suffered from an extremely debilitating condition. No concessions at all were made for her condition, and she was forced to make the move, which caused her additional pain.

Had fibromyalgia been recognised as a disability, the NHS, as my colleague’s employer, would have been obliged by law, under the Equality Act, to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate her condition and keep her in work. That could have involved allowing her to work shorter hours, allowing for extra rest breaks or even finding her alternative work on the North Manchester Hospital site so that she did not have to travel. Her case emphasises why it is so important that fibromyalgia is recognised as a disability; so that it becomes legally incumbent on employers to make reasonable adjustments.

Sadly, that person is not alone. I have had at least one constituent who has had to leave her job because of this condition. Louise-Ann Wilshaw contacted me last week and asked me to attend this debate. She told me that she had had a very tough year being off sick from work and eventually having to resign because of the debilitating effects of the condition. At just 45 years old, she says that her future seems very bleak. She is uncertain whether she will ever work again. She is also struggling with accepting and learning to cope with her illness and having to support herself financially. Illustrating the effects of her illness on memory and concentration—the fibro-fog, to which my hon. Friend Toby Perkins referred—she finished her email to me by apologising for any spelling mistakes that she might have made.

Many of those who have to leave work because of their experience of fibromyalgia often have trouble accessing the relevant benefits. Assessment for ESA and PIP depends not on a person being diagnosed with a particular health condition or disability, but on how their health condition or disability affects what they can and cannot do, as determined by a work capability assessment or PIP assessment. We need to do more to support those affected by fibromyalgia. For many, acknowledging their disability as a disability would be a great start.