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It's time to f ight back

In the beginning there was palpable unease.

HEARTS AND MINDS: Thousands of protesters took part in The Hardest Hit march in London earlier this year against Government cuts to benefits. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty
HEARTS AND MINDS: Thousands of protesters took part in The Hardest Hit march in London earlier this year against Government cuts to benefits. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty

A sense that the drive to remove people from incapacity benefit was so nakedly cost-driven the proposed savings could somehow be gauged accurately before a single patient had gone through a single interview.

But now there is unqualified rage. The way in which people are being assessed as capable for work under the welfare "reforms" is gathering new and more vocal opponents by the day as the sheer scale of misery and distress among sick and disabled claimants begins to turn a strategic departmental initiative into a national scandal.

Last week it was the main item on the agenda of the national conference of Inclusion, the umbrella charity which represents those with a wide range of both mental and physical impairments. A gathering under the banner "Rethinking disability policy in a hostile climate" is emblematic of the burgeoning range of disability activists shocked into direct action by the prospect of destitution.

The revolution sparked by Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State who chillingly refused to be re-shuffled "in order to finish the job", turns out not to be a venture into a brave new world of tidied up universal benefits so much as retreat into a Dickensian past of piling poverty on to incapacity.

The National Audit Office, medical unions and a host of charities supporting the vulnerable have all expressed their shock at the collateral damage of a sledgehammer policy supposedly applied to stamp out fraud and encourage claimants back into employment.

Analysis has found that tens of thousands of those in genuine need are being thrown off the books with absolutely zero prospect of finding paid employment.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP): "The over-arching principle is that everyone should have the opportunity to work and people with an illness or disability should get the help and support needed for them to engage in appropriate work." It adds: "All but those with the most severe illnesses and disabilities should engage in a programme of work-focused interviews."

Quite apart from the implicit cruelty in this Kakfkaesque prose, the odds of a job at the end of that process for those unemployed for reasons of disablement or chronic ill health are on a par with Mr Duncan Smith winning paralympic gold.

Sub-contracted to French firm Atos Health, the box-ticking computer model adopted to decide whether or not people are fit for work has spawned more appeals than any other Government department. That 40% of them have been successful – rising to 70% where advocacy is also involved – tells its own sad story.

Self evidently there are not enough advocates to go round. The Citizens Advice service in Scotland was swamped by 23,000 requests last year and managed to send a representative to over 2000 appeals.

Behind the statistics lie countless tales of appalling personal stress and misery. The assessment process has prompted a number of TV documentaries after which the online comments overflow with personal, often heartbreaking testimonies.

Bill Scott, manager of Inclusion Scotland, recalls a particularly devastating example in which a West Lothian stroke victim had his benefits removed despite partial paralysis and total speech loss. As his wife worked part-time she was also ineligible for income support. On top of personal tragedy they faced eviction.

The trouble with these stories, opined Tory MSP Alex Johnstone at last week's Holyrood welfare reform committee hearings, is that all of them are anecdotal, there's no real empirical evidence.

Like perhaps the poll of 1000 GPs alarmed at the fact one-fifth of their assessed patients reported suicidal tendencies. Or maybe that's just anecdotal too. GPs at a recent British Medical Association conference passed a motion saying the DWP procedure devolved to Atos was "inadequate computer-based assessments that have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons. The Work Capability Assessment should end with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society".

You might suppose a process so flawed that the cost of the appeals increases the cost of the original contract by half would ring the odd alarm bell at the Department of Work and Pensions. Instead we find Atos, the firm awarded £110 million to spread alarm and despondency among the sick, now being let loose at four times the price on the chronically disabled. They have been asked to assess those on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for suitability to receive the new Personal Independence Payment.

Worse still, they've been advised by the Government that "valuable information relating to the customer's (sic) medical condition and functional limitations will be available in the documentation used to evaluate the Employment Support Allowance claim". In other words, the current assessment of incapacity benefit patients will be used to inform judgments on the long-term DLA.

One of the many iniquities of this wholesale assault on the rights of the sick, disabled and vulnerable is the type of checklist deployed at interviews makes no allowance for the vagaries of people's condition. In the case of an MS sufferer, what is possible one morning could be quite beyond them the next.

And that's particularly true of those with mental health issues. Because of the inflexibility of the assessment, Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity MIND, felt compelled to leave Mr Duncan Smith's advisory group. He wants the assessment process halted and radically changed to take account of personal circumstances. "It's damaging people's lives. It's costing the taxpayer a fortune. And it certainly isn't fulfilling its purpose," he says.

Voices like these are important because they speak loudly for those who cannot. If this is compassionate Conservatism, heaven help us if they decide to turn vindictive.

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