Comment: Disability tests are a stain on Britain’s conscience
By Kaliya Franklin
The powerful and compelling report, produced by the We Are Spartacus campaign group, has been penned slowly over the course of a year by an extremely unwell and anonymous author too fearful of potential repercussions to reveal their true identity. The report bears witness to the indignity and suffering sick and disabled people are experiencing as they go through a work capability assessment process designed to be harsh and devoid from 'real world' factors relating to employment. The despair and confusion of the many voices in this report, some of whom knew that documenting their story was all they had to leave behind them, is a collective and powerful plea for their experiences to be heard above the mainstream shouts of scrounger.
The review highlights the contrast between the political promises that the genuine have nothing to fear, that the vulnerable will always be protected, and the blunt nature of a testing process which has found people with serious health problems such as heart failure, epilepsy and those paralysed down one side fit to return to the workplace. As the most dramatic of these cases make their way into the media it shocks a public reassured by the many pledges to protect the genuinely sick and disabled but so indoctrinated by the scrounger narrative they haven't realised these cases number into tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Politicians are aware of the flawed nature of the work capability assessment (WCA) and huge consequent cost of human suffering. Prior to the election of the coalition government, the concerns were championed by backbench MP Danny Alexander, now chief secretary to the Treasury. Despite many obvious issues the assessment was rolled out nationally and the government, via their contractors Atos Healthcare, embarked on a massive program to reassess people considered sick or disabled for incapacity benefit purposes into those fit to return to work for employment support allowance. At a time of economic boom and high employment it would have been a herculean but admirable challenge to find jobs and employers willing to take on people with multiple and often complex impairments, but in a time of recession and huge competition for every job it leads to nothing but increased poverty and discrimination.
People such as Karen Sherlock, Mark and Helen Mullins, and Colin Traynor are no longer living to tell of the poverty and fear they experienced in their final months of life, poverty directly caused by being found fit to work. They are just a few of the voices in this report that we can put names to, the shame and stress they suffered as a result of this process should be a stain on our national conscience.
The work capability assessment has been condemned as unfit for purpose by both the British Medical Association and the chair of the work and pensions select committee. The test, as mandated by the Department of Work and Pensions, uses descriptors to measure human beings against an arbitrary line of sickness or disability, a line drawn in an attempt to reduce overall welfare costs rather than act as a genuine method of considering the impact of impairment on an individual’s ability to function. Ability to function in a workplace, or even to travel there, is not relevant. What matters is whether a person can extend their limbs, lift an imaginary empty cardboard box or push their own wheelchair unaided for 50 meters. Real workplaces with real, accommodating employers are not a part of the process, very deliberately, as to do so would set the line of qualifying sickness or disability at a very different level. This is why the former minister for employment Chris Grayling was so adamant that he was "unreservedly and implacably opposed to a real world test". Should those real world factors such as ability to access transport be considered it would render many hundreds of thousands more eligible for a benefit being cut in the name of austerity.
These descriptors are set by the Department of Work and Pensions, as are the myriad of regulations surrounding it, such as the length of time until claimants are called for their next reassessment, further clogging the already groaning tribunals system as people win on appeal and then are almost immediately called back in for reassessment again, leading to further appeals. These timings are controlled by the DWP who already paid £110 million last year to Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments, leading to a second bill (again footed by the taxpayer) of £60 million in 2011-12 for people to successfully appeal the decisions made by DWP. The majority of buildings used for these assessments, many of which are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, are owned by the DWP and rented by Atos Healthcare. It is these kinds of inconsistencies and double payments which have led to strong criticism of the contract between DWP and Atos from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee.
The cost of all this, to the public purse and national conscience, is immense. The coalition government constantly reiterate sits understanding of the British desire to care for those they consider to be in need by cleverly using the language of protecting the most vulnerable. They say those in genuine need have nothing to fear.
As this latest report into the failings of the WCA demonstrates, failing those in genuine need is exactly the outcome. In itself that should be a matter of shame, but that the taxpayer is paying such vast sums of money to carry out this process compounds the matter and rubs salt into the wounds of those injured by this so called test of fitness.
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