Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK

6.6.11

When it comes to callousness, the supposedly caring veneer of David Cameron’s Tory party disintegrated almost as soon as the expedient governing coalition with the hapless Liberal Democrats was formed, when our new leaders announced, with evident relish, their intention of haranguing those without work at a time when there was only one job available for every five unemployed people.

Targetting the unemployed during a recession would be cruel under any circumstances, and it was disgraceful to see the government peddling the false notion that anyone without a job was a workshy scrounger and parasite — and to see that particular lie being lapped up by large numbers of my fellow citizens, thereby revealing that, beneath many people’s superficial respectability beat hearts of hatred, forever burning to find a scapegoat and to make them suffer.

With a sleight of hand, involving an absurdly strict cap on immigration that seemed to have been sourced directly from the fascist BNP, Cameron and his fellow butchers of the British state diverted attention away from immigration but made sure that the new scapegoats consisted of people without a job — even if, or perhaps especially if — they have physical or mental health problems.

Like many malignant Tory policies, overhauling what used to be known as the Invalidity Benefit system originated under the Tories in the 1990s (who replaced it with Incapacity Benefit and introduced a stricter validity test than previously existed) and continued under New Labour (who came up with a new benefit system, Employment and Support Allowance, accessed through even harsher tests — first of all, the Personal Capability Assessment, which was then replaced with the Work Capability Assessment).

However, as Steve Griffiths, a freelance consultant and researcher in health and social policy, explained in the opening paragraph of a recent article based on research for Compass, entitled, “The misuse of evidence in incapacity benefit reform” (PDF), the basis for these reforms is deeply flawed:

The idea that there are over a million people in Britain receiving Incapacity Benefit who are not entitled to it has driven a major strand of welfare reform for more than fifteen years, and was a cornerstone of the New Labour project. Yet this proposition was based from the beginning on selective use of evidence — and there is a persuasive alternative narrative, available from a wide range of sources, that has been determinedly overlooked by both major parties and by the media. There is of course no doubt that work is often good for health; and nor is there doubt that many people who are unfit for work might be able to return to work with appropriate support. The problem is that this case has been fatally exaggerated, while, on the other hand, large numbers of people with severe health needs — who are themselves the subject of huge investment by the Department of Health — have been treated as invisible (or, worse, as malingering) by the DWP and successive Work and Pensions ministers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those in charge of Work and Pensions have been driven by a compulsion to judge and to privatise, with any consideration of the population’s health needs deliberately excluded from their policy framework.

Griffiths’ article is worth reading in its entirety, but what concerns me here is the coalition government’s intention to push ahead with its own version of a policy that, in Labour’s dying years, had begun to attract savage criticism from experts.

Administered by ATOS, a French/Dutch company, the Work Capability Assessment found that roughly two-thirds of claimants were “fit for work,” but the programme was criticised by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Citizens’ Advice and the National Audit Office.

Citizens’ Advice found that “seriously ill people were inappropriately subjected to the Work Capability Assessment,” that “the assessment did not effectively measure fitness for work,” and that “application of the assessment was producing inappropriate outcomes,” and the Work and Pensions Committee stated, “We note widespread concerns that decision makers appear to give excessive weight to the conclusions of DWP medical assessments over other evidence claimants may provide. If a claimant is able to provide statements from specialists, who have regular contact with them, this evidence should be given due consideration.”

Perhaps the most damningly succinct criticism, however, came from the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which noted, in 2006, that the Personal Capability Assessment was “one of the toughest in the world.” As Steve Griffiths noted, “Unfortunately though, this recognition did not prompt any self-examination.” If anything, the Work Capability Assessment pushed a tougher line and is even tougher under the coalition government, as Debbie Jolly, the co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), stated in a recent blog post:

First introduced in 2008, the much criticised WCA has become even more punitive since changes in the 2011 edition of the training manual for assessors. Pilots in Aberdeen and Burnley have raised more criticisms of the process adding to the raft of criticisms from the British Medical Association, GPs, Citizens Advice Bureaus (CABs), Members of Parliament and disability organisations.

As Steve Griffiths points out, it is alarming that the coalition government is pushing ahead with its plans, when, for the last 15 years, the entire basis of subjecting the mentally and physically disabled to a review process has, essentially, been based on making reality fit a preconceived notion of the number of false claimants, which is itself based on deeply flawed research, and which, as a result, causes unnecessary hardship to some of the most vulnerable members of society. As Griffiths explains:

Close analysis of tribunal data and other source material since the introduction of Incapacity Benefit in 1995 suggests, at a very conservative estimate, that half a million people have been wrongly disallowed Incapacity Benefit, or, more recently, ESA. More than 300,000 have had their benefit restored at appeal after disallowance — at great public expense and personal and health cost.

Last week, in a letter to the Guardian, entitled, “Fatal consequences of benefit changes,” five CEOs — Paul Farmer of Mind, Paul Jenkins of Rethink Mental Illness, Prof. Bob Grove of the Centre for Mental Health, Bill Walden-Jones of Hafal, and Billy Watson of the Scottish Association for Mental Health — plus Dr. Jed Boardman, a Consultant and Senior Lecturer in Social Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, expressed their fears about the government’s policies.

“Reform of the welfare system is steaming ahead, and already we’re hearing about the devastating effects this is having on the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people across Great Britain,” they wrote, adding, “While much is made of the impact that changes to benefits will have on people with physical disabilities, it is vital that those with “invisible” issues such as mental health problems are not forgotten. Reassessments of people on Incapacity Benefit (IB) via the deeply flawed Work Capability Assessment are due to start next month, and the new personal independence payment test is being trialled over the summer — just some of the changes already alarming many people affected by mental distress.”

In a crucial passage, they wrote:

We’ve found that the prospect of IB reassessment is causing huge amounts of distress, and tragically there have already been cases where people have taken their own life following problems with changes to their benefits [emphasis added]. We are hugely worried that the benefits system is heading in a direction which will put people with mental health problems under even more pressure and scrutiny, at a time when they are already being hit in other areas such as cuts to services.

They also stated:

There needs to be a shift towards a more sympathetic and supportive system that genuinely takes into account the additional challenges people with mental health problems face and can make a real objective assessment of their needs rather than placing them into a situation where their wellbeing is put at risk.

In an article following up on the letter, the Guardian noted that in April the government had begun sending out 7,000 letters a week summoning people to attend their Work Capability Assessments, and is “now sending out more than 11,000 reassessment requests,” with the first interviews taking place this month.

In the Guardian‘s words, experts described the test as “not sophisticated enough to identify the challenges faced by people with mental health problems,” warning that the process was “increasing the pressure on those already suffering high levels of anxiety and stress.” A study for Mind, of 300 people affected, found that 75 percent of respondents “said the prospect of a Work Capability Assessment had made their mental health worse” and 51 percent “said it had left them with suicidal thoughts.” In addition, 95 percent “thought they would not be believed at their assessment.”

As the Guardian also explained, although the Work Capability Assessment was introduced for new claimants of the Employment Support Allowance in 2008, “critics are increasingly concerned that it will be used to reassess the first wave of incapacity benefit claimants from June.”

It cited the case of Liz Woollard, 48, who “suffers from depression and anxiety,” and who failed the test, which lasted less than an hour, “despite two GPs, a psychiatrist and a senior nurse stating she was not able to work.” The report stated that she “did not appear to be trembling … sweating … or making rocking movements.” She subsequently appealed, but lost the appeal after an eleven-month wait, and “has now been told that she will have to be reassessed again.”

As she told the Guardian, “It was a couple of weeks before Christmas and I had been out for a Christmas lunch with some friends and they made a lot of that … They did not have any sympathy or understanding of mental health issues. In that fortnight I had a major depressive episode that left me in bed for three days [but] they virtually brushed over that … In the written report they didn’t mention that — they focused instead on the Christmas lunch I had managed to attend.”

The Guardian also spoke to Julie Tipping, an appeals officer for the charity Disability Solutions, who said Woollard’s case was “not unusual.” As the Guardian described it, she said that “many people with mental health problems had had their benefits cancelled and appealed successfully, only to be told their case needed to be reassessed again.”

“This is having a devastating impact on people with mental health issues,” Tipping said, describing it, crucially, as “a constant reassessment process which is just absolutely relentless. It is almost like they want to assess you to death or reassess you until you can’t face it any longer and drop out of the system altogether. It is like a deliberate grinding down process. It is devastating to see.”

She added that two of her clients had tried to commit suicide after being told that they were “fit for work” after assessments, and that both ended up sectioned instead.

“These were really serious attempts, not cries for help, these were people who had just had enough and this was the final straw for them,”Topping said, adding, “Do we really need to wait to such a stage where people are trying to throw themselves from a bridge before somebody listens to how chronically affected they are by their condition? Is that the kind of society we want to live in?”

For me, and, i hope, for many other UK citizens, I hope the answer is no. I had already heard about suicides taking place under the Labour government, but this promises to be much worse, not only because of the deliberate callousness of the procedure, but also because of the “relentless” reassessment process identified by Julie Tipping, and elaborated upon by Debbie Jolly of Disabeld People Against Cuts in her recent blog post:

Those going through the test can be put into one of three groups: ESA Support Group — not required to undertake work-related activity, but will be reassessed continuously; ESA Work Related Activity Group, for those deemed fit for work with support and preparation. It will be limited to just 12 months before ESA is stopped, and also may be subject to reassessment in the 12 month period; or Fit for Work, not entitled to ESA but transferred to a lower amount on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Note: For reports on “The Hardest Hit,” a protest in central London by and for disabled people on May 11, see this Guardian article by campaigner Jody McIntyre. Also see this article and these opinions (also from the Guardian). For further information about the government’s cruel notions of welfare reform, and my despair at my fellow citizens, see the following articles that I wrote last year: Butchering the Poor, the Ill, the Weak, the Dispossessed and the Marginalized: Welcome to Cameron and Osborne’s Heartless Britain, Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare, The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms and On Housing Benefit Cuts, British Public Reveals Shocking Lack of Empathy and Compassion.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

55 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul, for your comments. I hope that our fellow citizens are starting to realise that they have been lied to, but I worry about the lasting impact of the lies about “scroungers” and “shirkers” to which they have been subjected by the tabloids and the government, unleashing a meanness of spirit that truly appals me.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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