Tartaglia attacks ‘injustice’ of Coalition benefit reform
SCOTLAND’S leading Catholic cleric has attacked the UK Government’s welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith over benefit reforms, calling for a rethink and saying it is the Church’s role to speak out against injustice.
In a letter to the Work and Pensions Secretary, Archbishop of Glasgow Philip Tartaglia singles out the Coalition’s use of health assessments firm Atos, speaking of terminally-ill individuals being summoned to back-to-work checks and people having benefits stopped while seriously ill.
Archbishop Tartaglia also raises the role of Atos as a sponsor of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and questions the morality of the French multinational profiting “when sick and disabled people are suffering”.
MPs and MSPs involved in welfare reform praised the Archbishop’s intervention, but the Department for Work and Pensions insisted its systems were working. Atos insisted it did not make decisions on benefits and simply followed guidelines set out by the UK Government in 2008.
In his letter, Archbishop Tartaglia said his concerns were not party political, acknowledging Mr Duncan Smith’s visits to Glasgow on welfare issues, where in 2002 he took a new direction after seeing Easterhouse.
But he said:
“My concern is as a bishop whose people are suffering. It is not the Church’s role to define benefit levels or set targets for savings. It is, however, the Church’s role to speak out against injustice, especially when those affected are often weak and without means.
“I have been made aware of cases of terminally ill people being summoned for assessments; people with severe learning difficulties being asked to present themselves for assessment not knowing what the process is all about; people being passed as fit for work and having their benefits stopped when they are clearly still seriously ill.
“People’s human dignity is being trampled upon and glaring errors are being made. These circumstances, together with recent revelations by nurses and doctors who have spoken out against the tests they are being asked to perform on people, and which they, in conscience, can no longer collaborate with, must surely mean the time has come for a re-think.
“In addition, it is wrong for Atos to be profiting when sick and disabled people are suffering because of the harshness and bluntness of the work capability assessment, and there are many in this city who question the wisdom of having them as sponsors of the Commonwealth Games. But while Atos implements the assessments it is your own department’s responsibility to regulate the system, and so it is to you that I address my appeal.”
The Archbishop raises widespread public concern and opposition to the health checks, calling on Mr Duncan Smith to rethink the reforms.
“I ask you to consider ordering a review so that thousands of the most vulnerable people in this city and beyond may be spared the anxiety and distress which has already befallen so many.”
Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West Tom Greatrex, who has fought to change the Work Capability Assessment, said the intervention was “important and significant”.
“This is not about party politics, it is about the widespread concern over the appalling way in which the Atos assessments are conducted.
“Iain Duncan Smith should listen to the Archbishop’s call for compassion and dignity so the assessment is genuinely about helping those who can work, not hounding those who can’t.”
An Atos spokesman said:
“No-one with a terminal illness should be called for a face-to-face assessment and, where possible, we will look for extra medical evidence to prevent having to see people face-to-face that we don’t need to, such as those with the most severe conditions.
“We do not make decisions on benefit entitlement nor are we in any way targeted on the outcome of benefit decisions. What we do is conduct the Work Capability Assessment strictly following the guidelines defined by the Government in 2008 and with care and compassion for those who we know find the experience stressful.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said reviews and work with medical experts and charities had considerably improved the Work Capability Assessment since 2010.
He said: “The percentage of people entitled to employment and support allowance is now at its highest level – but everyone has the right to appeal a decision if they disagree with it.”
A Glasgow 2014 spokesman said: “We are very proud to have global IT experts Atos as part of Glasgow 2014’s sponsor family.”