Today Iain Duncan Smith is being questioned by the Commons work and pensions committee on universal credit, after finally admitting last week that the scheme’s targets had been “reset”. Last week, the petition calling for a cumulative impact assessment of the way welfare reform affects sick and disabled people, known as the WOW petition, passed 100,000 signatures, triggering its consideration for debate by the backbench business committee. To add to Duncan Smith’s woes, the well-respected Centre for Welfare Reform has released details of its report, How Norms Become Targets, which exposes the myth that Atos, the private company responsible for assessing the needs of people unable to work, does not do so on the basis of targets.
Today also sees the publication of the stunning People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment (pdf). It has been compiled by the anonymous organisation, We Are Spartacus, whose activism in this area has been hugely empowering. The report is a collection of statistics surrounding welfare reform and reactions of MPs, charities and professional groups to the way in which it has been administered. An almanac of condemnation, if you will. Most importantly, the report compiles statements from sick and disabled people actually going through the system.
These are most encouraging developments and point to a sea-change in the way our democracy works in this internet age. There is no doubt that without extensive use of the internet and social media, the compilation of such a detailed report would have been impossible and its publication unnoticed. For too long, this group of most vulnerable people, many of them with serious health and mobility problems, have been too easy a target for cost-cutting governments of all hues to demonise, recalibrate and victimise. This is no longer the case. Vulnerable people have grabbed the issue by the scruff of the neck and are taking the fight to the government. It is inspirational and points the way to a level of democratisation hitherto unseen.
I encourage you to read the report. It is packed with striking statistics and heartrending stories, in the words of people being put through this inhuman and degrading assessment. It contains the stories of those who can no longer speak, having taken their own lives or succumbed to their illness, while being hounded by the very department which is meant to protect them, people like Peter whose leg fused as a result of injury and, having suffered a stroke which meant he couldn’t grip with one hand, received a text telling him to attend the Jobcentre. He sent his partner a text which read “I give up”. He was found hanging at his home.
It contains incredibly powerful quotes which show that dissatisfaction with Atos is spread across MPs of all parties. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP, said of the assessment procedure: “Not surprisingly, it adds to their [claimants] sense of worthlessness – already stoked by a longstanding political narrative from both sides of the political divide that they are ‘shirkers, not workers’ or a drain on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’. They are neither.”
It contains tragic and often simultaneously humorous stories of ridiculous assessment reports, like the one on a 59-year-old woman who had had a hysterectomy following cervical cancer, which observed: “There is no evidence that the client is currently pregnant.” Or the one which concluded that someone who took an overdose of medication the previous night had “no current thoughts of self harm”.
This programme of welfare reform was always doomed to fail for a very simple reason. The purpose of welfare is to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable; its reform must have their interests at heart, rather than cost-cutting targets. Proper reform costs money. Duncan Smith himself recognised this simple fact before he came into power. In 2009, explaining his proposed reforms, he recognised that they would lead to a rise in the welfare bill in the short-term.
Iain Duncan Smith’s fall from grace, because of a botched IT system which has already caused £140m to be written off, is properly a cause of both frustration and comedy – like Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion. But I must ask, we all must ask: how many of the vulnerable people mentioned in the Spartacus report would still be alive today if that money has been properly spent?
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