First Published in The Eurasia Review
August 10, 2012
What has happened to my country? I grew up in a Christian household — my father was Church of England, my mother Methodist — and both believed in Christian charity; in other words, the need for people of faith to look after those less fortunate than themselves.
In the case of my Methodist heritage — as a working class religion, rather than the establishment C of E — this care for those in need was absolutely central to how the world was perceived, providing a social and political perspective as much as one based on religion.
Christians — and, of course, believers of other faiths — have their own share of hypocrites, and certainly do not have a monopoly on caring for the poor and the sick, as can be seen by the number of atheists with a well-developed social conscience, but in the Britain of today, driven by the Tory-led coalition government, concern for the poor and the ill appears to have become deeply unfashionable, leading to a callousness in society as a whole that has been encouraged by governments themselves (not just this shower of heartless Etonians), and by large parts of the media.
The defining characteristics of this cruel new world appears to be a preoccupation with selfishness and materialism, and, as part of a decline in empathy and the dissolving of the kind of political solidarity that was central to those opposing Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, for example, a narrow and horribly misplaced focus for dissent — not on the bigger political picture, and on the corporate and banking élites getting way with financial murder, but on people’s neighbours, or those regarded as different, or inferior, or feral, or workshy scroungers.
Relentlessly, as part of an ideologically motivated programme of cuts aimed at ending the state provision of the services entail for a well-functioning civil society, the butchers of the Tory-led government have been attacking schoolchildren, students, the working poor, the unemployed, the old, the ill and disabled people.
On this latter point, the panic and fear in the disabled community, as the government cuts the financial support that makes life tolerable, has received far too little attention in the media and from ordinary British people, who have been content to push a deeply cynical message about scroungers, and have not been willing to examine what it means when, for example, a severely disabled person with a partner who earns just £7,500 a year is no longer entitled to any financial support whatsoever from the government — a saving of up to £5,000 a year that will plunge these people into horrendous poverty and powerlessness. In fact, even the Department of Work and Pensions estimates that fewer than 0.5% of incapacity claims are fraudulent, but that inconvenient truth is never mentioned in the tirades against scroungers in the mainstream media.
As the centrepiece of its mission to impoverish disabled people, the government has implemented a Work Capability Assessment, designed to establish that people with serious physical and/or mental disabilities are, in fact, fit for work, and can have their financial support cut — and, in some circumstances, be forced into unpaid work.
Beginning next year, with the stated aim of cutting spending by 20 percent over the next three years, the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which, as the Guardian put it, “pays out a maximum of £130 a week [and] is a welfare payment designed to help people look after themselves and aimed at those who find it difficult to walk or get around,” will be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), heavily criticised by disability campaigners. Moreover, the fact that the government has announced its intention to cut spending by 20 percent indicates that it is driven by cost and not by need, as is also clear from an examination of the tests run for the Department of Work and Pensions by the French company Atos Healthcare.
The tests, are, by any objective measure, a disaster, as they deliberately fail to provide an accurate assessment of claimants’ illnesses, and are overturned on appeal to such an extent that Employment Minister Chris Grayling was recently caught out trying to censor a Ministry of Justice courts service information video that helped people in their appeals.
I’m glad to note that both the BBC and Channel 4 recently broadcast programmes examining this disgraceful state of affairs — both from the point of view of the cruelty and incompetence of the assessments, and of the aim not of providing the best service possible to disabled people, but of saving a fixed amount money. For Channel 4, Dispatches went undercover at Atos for “Britain on the Sick,” in which Dr. Steve Bick, a GP, became an assessor. As Jackie Long explained on the Channel 4 website:
While training he’s told more than once to understand the new Employment Support Allowance process is “meant to take people off benefit.”
Despite repeated claims by the government and Atos that there are no targets for taking claimants off benefit, it’s made clear to Dr. Bick that if he finds too many people unfit for work, his own assessments will be monitored.
The trainer explains: “You are being watched carefully for the rate of support group (people found unfit for work and therefore eligible for the highest level of ESA). If it’s more than, I think, 12 or 13 percent you will be fed back ‘your rate is too high.’”
It’s a view repeated later in the footage by another doctor who says the targets come from the Department for Work and Pensions — a claim once again denied by the government and by Atos.
The Channel 4 article also noted:
The footage also suggests just how tough it is to be found “unfit for work.” The trainer talks through how people with a disability affecting their arms must be assessed: “If they have one problem, one frozen shoulder, one impeachment syndrome, one broken elbow, one hand problem , no limb, amputation, they may score a little but the problem has to be bilateral.” She goes on to concede that it’s a “very, very tough benefit.”
How tough is made clear when Dr. Bick asks what sort of job someone with only one hand might be able to do. The trainer elaborates: “As long as you’ve got one finger and you can press a button you don’t score anything for manual dexterity.”
The BBC’s programme, for Panorama, was “Disabled or Faking It?” and is available below, after being posted to YouTube:
Disgracefully, just last week it was announced that Atos has been awarded contracts worth more than £400m to continue with the discredited assessments. As the Guardian explained, “The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced the award of three contracts in England and Wales, with Atos unexpectedly winning the lion’s share of the work. The smaller of the three contracts, covering Wales and parts of central England, was won by the outsourcing company Capita.”
G4S, tainted by its failure to fulfil its contract at the Olympics, despite taking £284 million in taxpayers’ money, had “begun its own tests with disabled people two years ago,” and had “hoped to be awarded a number of contracts,” but lost out, for the most part. Even so, the company was “still in line for two smaller contracts — one in Northern Ireland and the other a national trial,” according to the Guardian, which also noted that industry insiders estimated that these contracts were “worth about £200m in total.”
As the Guardian also noted, Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of the disability charity Scope, emphasised what a disgrace it was that the tests — which will be applied to two million people from next year — were continuing at all, noting that the government and Atos had “come under a great deal of criticism about how this assessment is being delivered to disabled people.”
He added, “Yet in less than a year from now, disabled people could have to go through two deeply flawed assessments in the same month to get the essential financial support they need to live their lives.” Mentioning how the cuts are aimed primarily at saving money, he also said, “Disabled people are incredibly anxious and afraid that the switch from DLA to PIP is just an excuse to cut the support they need. The decision about which private company will run the assessment is of little significance to the thousands of disabled people who are just deeply worried about losing their financial lifeline.”
The Guardian‘s article further emphasised the point about saving money, noting that campaigners stated that “achieving the level of saving required would mean cutting about 500,000 people from the benefit roll, which would lead to arbitrary judgments being made.”
Quite how we bring sanity and sympathy back to the UK is beyond me, but as the country will shortly be returning to normality after its Olympic fever, I hope that the run-up to the Paralympic Games might provide an opportunity for some of the best impulses to have come out of the Games — a kind of Utopianism regarding the peaceful co-existence of athletes from all around the world, despite their competition in the Games themselves — to be applied by British people to those less fortunate than themselves.
One useful series of events to focus on is The Atos Games, five days of activities, from August 27 to 31, initiated by Disabled People Against Cuts, in protest at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympic Games — a clear example of how, in the modern world, even satire has been preempted by corporate PR. Do come along to some or all of the events if you can, to show the government, and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), that it is entirely inappropriate for Atos to be sponsoring disabled athletes on the one hand, while, with the other, doing so much to take away vital support from hundreds of thousands of other disabled people.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.