WHAT kind of welfare system do we want?
Certainly, one that offers help to those who genuinely need it (that is its defining principle). Certainly, one that provides an incentive to work rather than remain unemployed. Hopefully, one that tackles the problem of inter-generational unemployment and the incentives that trap some people on benefits. But never a system that is so intent on saving money and coming down hard on cheats that it ends up hounding people who are too ill to work.
Unfortunately, this is what appears to be happening. For some time now, this newspaper has been reporting on how the Work Capability Assessment is being rolled out and how the French company Atos, which was awarded the contract to assess claimants, has been operating. It has not been encouraging. There have been reports of chaotic hearings with surreal or ridiculous questions, of patients dying while waiting to hear if their appeals have been successful, and, worst of all, of desperately ill patients with no hope of recovery being questioned on whether they are fit to work.
Ladonia Lowe can testify to this last problem. Mrs Lowe, even though she is confined to bed and has been told by her doctors that her condition is terminal, must still face a work capability assessment, which gives rise to the fear that, in pursuing a welfare system that is as efficient and low-cost as possible, the genuinely ill and the dying are being harassed.
This must not be allowed to continue. No-one is questioning the need for reform of sickness and disability benefits, particularly when in some parts of the country, including Glasgow, one in 10 working-age adults now depends on these benefits. However, those who genuinely cannot work must get the support they need. The Coalition Government, despite its fraud-busting zeal, has said it believes this. Now it must prove it.
The issue with the Work Capability Assessment appears to be that in an area where the Department for Work and Pensions has some discretion on how the rules are applied, they are being applied strictly. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of claimants being assessed as fit to work (no doubt welcomed by the more determined welfare reformers in the Tory party) but the fact there has been a concomitant increase in successful appeals suggests that the tendency of the system and those who operate it is too harsh.
In the case of the terminally ill, this has particularly distressing consequences. Clarity is needed in the system and specifically, a reiteration of the assumption which has long been in place that patients judged terminally ill by their doctors have limited or no capability to work and should not have to complete an assessment. Not only would this be good for staff who are trying to make the system work, it would be good for taxpayers who are having to pay for thousands of avoidable appeals. Above all, however, it would be good for frail and vulnerable people who should be given peace, and as much help as possible, in the final stages of their lives.
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