Call Time on This Wretched Government and Its Assault on the Disabled

11.10.12

Please, please, please sign and promote the petition, initiated by Pat Onions and other disabled activists, calling for the British government to “stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families.” The petition needs to reach 100,000 signatures by November 1 to be eligible for Parliamentary debate.

One month ago, the Paralympic Games came to an end, and there were hopes that, after two weeks in which disabled people had been the focus of the media and the British people, and had performed spectacularly well, the time might be ripe for those fortunate enough not to be physically or mentally disabled to realise that they were being lied to by their government, and that the Tories’ wretched assault on disabled people as cheats and scroungers was both cruel and deeply unfair.

In a cynical attempt to cut expenditure on welfare, the government has embarked upon a particularly horrific assault on the mentally and/or physically disabled through the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), administered by the French-based multinational company Atos Healthcare, and designed to find disabled people fit for work, even when, as in a heartbreakingly large number of cases, they are not.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of disabled people will lose between £20 and £131.50 a week when the ­Disability Living Allowance (DLA) that is a crucial part of their support is ­”replaced with the more restrictive ­Personal ­Independence Payments as part of a £2.2billion cost-cutting plan,” as the Sunday Mirror explained last month. As the Mirror also explained, “The DLA currently goes to around 3.2 million people at a cost of £12.6 billion a year. Analysts estimate up to 500,000 disabled people will have their allowance entirely withdrawn over the next four years as ­eligibility criteria is tightened.”

The results of this assault on the disabled are already horrendous. People are treated disdainfully by Atos’s representatives, as they systematically play down their disabilities, and then have their financial support cut. In appeals, over two-thirds of claimants are winning with assistance from sympathetic advisers, but nothing gets the government off their backs. Whether or not those in receipt of financial support have degenerative conditions that will never improve, they, like everyone else, will soon be back on the treadmill of assessments, as Atos and the government again try to prove them fit for work, imposing huge stresses and strains along the way, which have undoubtedly contributed to the rising death toll amongst the disabled.

During the Paralympic Games, what was particularly noticeable was how disabled athletes, while obliged to put up with the breathtaking cynicism of Atos buying itself a role as a sponsor of the Games, were as critical as they could be. At the opening ceremony, for example, athletes reportedly hid their Atos-branded badges, and as the Games wound down, several disabled athletes spoke openly to the Sunday Mirror about their disgust at the government’s position.

Team GB footballer Keryn Seal, who is blind, told the Mirror he “relies on his £70-a-week allowance to get to training.” He explained, “I find it quite incredible that the ­Government can go around handing out medals when away from the Games they are taking the DLA away. It’s all well and good backing disabled sports at the highest level and looking good for the cameras but what they are doing is going to affect hundreds of thousands of disabled people really badly.” Speaking after George Osborne and Theresa May were both booed after presenting medals at the Games, he added, “Some of the reason George ­Osborne and Theresa May were booed was because of the DLA stuff.”

Keryn also said that “he spends £50 a week of the allowance just to get to and from training,” because, like most British athletes, he “receives no Government funding,” and “relies on the DLA to pay for his young children to get to ­playschool.” A father of two, from Exeter, he explained, “I came out of university two years ago with a 2:1 in sports studies but I haven’t worked since. I have applied for loads of jobs and only had four interviews. In many ways training for the Olympics has kept me going and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have the DLA ­payments. I can’t understand why the Government would dream of ­taking this money away from us. It shows a complete lack of ­empathy. Disillusioned, disenchanted and disappointed are all words I would use to describe how I feel about the Government.”

Double amputee Derek Derenalagi, who took part in the discus competition and who lost his legs in a bomb attack in Afghanistan, receives £100 a week in Disability Living Allowance, and told the Mirror that the changes “would have a ­’devastating’ effect on many disabled people.” He explained, “The Paralympics have been huge and people have enjoyed it but when it finishes we are still disabled. I hope the Government will change these decisions as it could be terrible for us.”

He added, “The money really helps with our ­training and everyday life. I spend it on things like my discs which cost £60 to £70, trainers which can be around £60 and physio which is about £70 a time. Not every Paralympian is sponsored and we would hugely struggle without it. We do not get paid like footballers and it really helps us.”

Ben Quilter from Brighton, who won a bronze medal in judo, is partially sighted and receives around £50 a week in Disability Living Allowance. He told the Mirror, “Losing my DLA would affect my general life. There is no doubt about it. I need the money to travel around. For example, a train ticket to London costs about £14. I also need it to buy iPad apps which help me with my disability and allow me to interact with people. I really hope the Government change their mind on this. It’s a real shame as the Paralympics has been so amazing. It is a very important issue.”

These examples — and others reported at the time — should have prompted some deep soul-searching amongst the British people, and especially throughout the mainstream media, but the media refuses to ally itself to causes, which, increasingly, plays into the hands of cynical opportunists like the Tories, who are getting to indulge in class war and the oppression of the weakest in society without much opposition, when really the scale of their crimes deserves a call to arms on a daily basis.

The ordinary people, meanwhile, struggle to find an outlet for their frustrations with politicians, if they are fortunate enough not to have fallen for the Nazi-style slurs on the poor, the weak, the ill, the old, the young, the disabled and students, which the Tories and malignant media barons are constantly encouraging, so that when all the elements of solidarity that survived the years of Thatcher, Major and Blair have been thoroughly eradicated, those in penury will be completely alone, and, as in the most wretched of times, those with nothing still fight each other rather than realising who their real enemies are.

There is hope, of course, as there is always hope. John McDonnell MP has submitted an Early Day Motion against Atos, which has been signed by 111 MPs to date, and which states:

That this House deplores that thousands of sick and disabled constituents are experiencing immense hardship after being deprived of benefits following a work capability assessment carried out by Atos Healthcare under a 100 million a year contract; notes that 40 per cent of appeals are successful but people wait up to six months for them to be heard; deplores that last year 1,100 claimants died while under compulsory work-related activity for benefit and that a number of those found fit for work and left without income have committed or attempted suicide; condemns the International Paralympic Committee’s promotion of Atos as its top sponsor and the sponsorship of the Olympics by Dow Chemical and other corporations responsible for causing death and disability; welcomes the actions taken by disabled people, carers, bereaved relatives and organisations to end this brutality and uphold entitlement to benefits; and applauds the British Medical Association call for the work capability assessment to end immediately and to be replaced with a system that does not cause harm to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Please urge your MP to sign it, if they haven’t already.

As for what else can be done, please attend the TUC rally, “A Future That Works,” on October 20 in central London and make your voice heard against the dreadful treatment of the disabled, and against all the other ideologically imposed cuts imposed by this most savage of governments. And if you need other persuasive arguments for people to take on the government regarding its treatment of the disabled, then please read the following article from the Guardian by Amelia Gentleman, whose coverage of those affected by the government’s”age of austerity” has been excellent. It concerns Ruth Anim, the severely disabled daughter of Cecelia Anim, the deputy president of the Royal College of Nursing, who “has epilepsy, heart problems, curvature of the spine, severe autism and a mental age of 10,” as well as having no sense of danger, as noted by Sarah Ismail in the Independent yesterday. Along with other coverage, the Guardian article caused such a stir that Atos “apologised to the Anims for the ‘error’ they made in finding Ruth fit for work.”

As Sarah Ismail noted, however, having recently covered the shocking case of Liam Barker, 18 years old, and paralysed since birth, who breathes through a ventilator, but whose parents “had just received a letter informing them that in order to receive Employment Support Allowance, he might have to prove he is unable to work by attending a Work Capability Assessment,” there is “a strong possibility that the Anims would not have received an apology if Cecelia Anim did not have a high profile.”

Moreover, even with Ruth Anim’s victory, she “will be assessed again in two years.”

As Sarah Ismail also explained:

Ruth Anim and Liam Barker may have very different disabilities, but sadly, benefit assessments have placed them in very similar situations. Both are severely disabled. It is clear to anyone who hears their stories that neither will be any more fit for work in two years’ time than they are today.

That’s why assessing either of them again will be a greater waste of government time and taxpayers’ money than simply providing both of them with the benefits they are so clearly genuinely entitled to. This is without taking into consideration the emotional stress that will be caused to them and their parent carers by the process, first of attending assessments and later of appealing against wrong decisions.

When I was trying hard to publicise the case of Liam Barker online two weeks ago, someone suggested that a database should be kept of people who are too severely disabled to ever be fit for work. This is an idea that should be given serious consideration by all relevant government departments.

Because the next severely disabled person who is threatened with, or sent to, a WCA may not have supportive, high profile parents. They may not have the ability to appeal if they are wrongly found fit for work. They may not be able to do anything but suffer in silence.

The database is a great idea, but in the meantime do read Amelia Gentleman’s article if you haven’t already done so. Like Liam Barker’s case — and who knows how many others — it should convince the people of this country to locate their hearts and do all in their power to turf this wretched government out of office immediately.

Get ready for work: what woman who needs constant care was told
By Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian, October 3, 2012

Ruth Anim has learning difficulties, a heart problem and epilepsy. A work capability test by Atos said she should prepare for a job.

Ruth Anim needs constant one-to-one care, has no concept of danger and attends life skills classes to learn practical things like how to make a sandwich or a cup of tea. So it came as a considerable surprise to her mother, Cecilia, that an official assessment of her daughter’s abilities classified her as someone who would be capable of finding work in the near future.

The report contained a number of factual errors, perhaps most remarkably the assessor’s description of the 27-year-old as a “male client”, but more disturbing for Anim was the conclusion of the doctor who carried out the test: “I advise that a return to work could be considered within 12 months.”

Anim says: “For Ruth to go to work is actually totally unimaginable. She can’t even cross the road without someone going with her; she doesn’t know that if a car hits you it will kill you; she has no concept of danger.” Her daughter was born with complex medical needs, learning disabilities, a heart problem and epilepsy. “She is somebody who has a one-to-one carer — is she meant to go to work with her carer?”

As a result of the assessment, Ruth was assigned to a category known as the work related activity group, and required to attend the jobcentre regularly to begin mandatory preparations for going to work.

Cecilia Anim’s amazement at the written report, describing her daughter’s work capability assessment (WCA), the test to determine fitness for work, echoes the shock felt by hundreds of thousands of former claimants of incapacity benefit over the last three years, after undergoing the stringent new computerised test to check their continued eligibility for benefit payments.

Since the test was introduced in 2008 more than 600,000 people have appealed against the assessments; the cost to the state of those appeals has risen from £25m in 2009-10 to £60m in 2011-12. About 38% of those who appeal against an initial fit-for-work finding see that decision overturned on appeal and benefits granted. Welfare rights organisations and charities have voiced consistent unease about the test and the way doctors employed by the private IT firm Atos, which is paid £100m a year by the government to carry out the test, have implemented it.

Last week Labour called for a “fast and radical” overhaul of the system, admitting the policy it introduced when in government was not working.

As deputy president of the Royal College of Nursing, Anim can project her fury about the experience her daughter endured far more powerfully than most individuals going through the system. This awareness has heightened her desire to talk about the “injustice of the process”, to educate people about how inaccurate the assessments can be.

“I am able to fight back, but what about the people who are not able to fight back? It’s causing a lot of problems for a lot of people,” she says. “My daughter’s consultant neurologist was beside himself with fury when I told him. The first question he asked was, ‘Have they done a risk assessment?'”

Ruth’s case is by no means exceptional. Mencap, the charity which supports people with a learning disability, says it has seen countless similarly surprising cases of misclassification of vulnerable clients, many of whom are told they are not eligible for any sickness or disability benefit and must seek work immediately.

The principle underlying the WCA is that a health condition or disability should not automatically be regarded as a barrier to work, and in theory the policy is designed to ensure that support is available to help people find work. Anim says there is nothing she would like more than for her daughter to find a job, just as she would like her to get married and have the kind of life her contemporaries have, but she argues that, given the severity of her daughter’s condition, this approach is not realistic.

The 45-minute examination was chaotic from start to finish, Anim says. Her daughter was extremely anxious and kept asking the doctor if he was going to take a blood test. She refused to sit down and hopped on and off the medical examining couch when the doctor was talking to her. Anim points to a line in the partly computer-generated report which notes “client was able to sit on a chair with a back for 45 minutes”.

“The whole examination was very chaotic and bizarre because she was not co-operating. But in his report he has put that Ruthie sat for 45 minutes. She never sat down for more than three minutes. She was all over the place,” she says. “At one point she went to the tap and washed her hands and started spraying the water everywhere. He raised his voice and said ‘Stop doing that!’ I said no, no, don’t speak to her like that. She’s got learning difficulties; she doesn’t understand.”

A few questions the doctor asked, about her daughter’s condition and her schooling, made Anim doubt his familiarity with the British care system. He noted in his report that her daughter’s speech was normal, although Anim had done most of the speaking. The few questions Ruth managed to respond to were answered inaccurately. “He asked her how old she was and she said 18, despite the fact that she is 27,” she says.

A few months after the medical assessment Ruth was called to an interview at the jobcentre to discuss finding work. She went with her mother, who was aghast when she understood why they had been called in. “I said ‘Are you having a laugh?'” The jobcentre adviser realised very quickly that a mistake had been made. “We sat down, and every question she asked her, Ruth raised her palms as if she didn’t know the answer. She asked ‘What day is it?’; Ruthie said Thursday, but it was Tuesday. She asked ‘What time is it?’. She said 5.30pm, but it was 2.30pm,” she recalls. “Ruth was rummaging through the tray on her desk and being disruptive. She kept saying, ‘What’s your name?'”

“They said she must come every three weeks to show that she is actively seeking work,” Anim says; but the adviser also told her that she could appeal against the decision. “It only took her 10 minutes to realise that the decision was wrong.”

Anim spent her summer holiday trying to sort out the problem, marshalling the support of her local MP, Glenda Jackson, and a welfare rights organisation, Brent Association of Disabled People, as well as contacting Atos and the DWP.

The decision caused immense stress to the whole family, she says. “As a nurse I know what effect this has on families. You have to constantly struggle to get the support to meet her basic needs. After all we have gone through, then to be told she needs to look for work. She was totally oblivious to what was going on, as usual, but we felt disbelief, frustration, stress and shock.

“It was a barmy decision. People with learning disabilities need all the support they can get. [They should] not be put in this situation where there is total ignorance about their ability to work, safety and wellbeing.”

Although the Royal College of Nursing has no official position on the WCA, Anim is clear that the policy needs urgent reform. “The system needs to be overhauled and reviewed.”

The DWP says that it has introduced numerous improvements to the testing process, but charities state that serious problems continue. A report published by Citizens Advice earlier this year found a “worryingly low” level of accuracy in the assessments. The charity, which supports many people who feel they have been wrongly denied benefits through the appeals process, has seen a 71% increase in workload relating to the employment and support allowance (the replacement to incapacity benefit) over the past two years.

Campaigners blame both the design of the policy and the way it has been implemented for the problems. The headquarters of Atos have been repeatedly targeted by disabled protesters, angry at the company’s involvement in the assessments, and the company’s sponsorship of the Paralympics caused widespread controversy.

The National Audit Office criticised the Department for Work and Pensions in August for not having “sought financial redress for contractor underperformance” and recommended that it “tighten performance requirements with Atos in relation to the quality of medical assessments”.

Earlier this year delegates at the BMA conference passed a motion stating that the “inadequate computer-based assessment” performed by Atos had “little regard for the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons”, and proposed that the WCA should be halted “with immediate effect”.

Jane Alltimes, senior policy officer at Mencap, said Ruth’s case was not particularly extreme. Mencap has submitted recommendations for improvement to the system to the DWP, and is arguing for greater recognition of employers’ unwillingness to employ people with learning disabilities. Just 7% of people who receive state support for their learning disabilities are in work.

“The evidence we’ve seen suggests an assessment process that isn’t working for lots of people with a learning disability. An assessment designed to determine a person’s ‘fitness for work’ needs to take into account the realities of the barriers experienced by disabled people in getting a job — things like job availability, the prejudices of employers, the support people need to overcome the barriers they face. The assessment in its current form just doesn’t do that.”

An Atos Healthcare spokesperson said: “We apologise for any discrepancy in our report and any distress this may have caused. We carry out around 15,000 assessments each week and work hard to provide the DWP with as much detailed information as we can to contribute to them making an accurate decision on benefits.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The work capability assessment is under constant review to ensure it is both fair and effective, and it is in everyone’s interest to get the system right. We are committed to help thousands of people move from benefits and back into work while giving unconditional support to those who are most in need.”

Note: To keep up with everything that is going on, and as an antidote to the kind of lies told by Atos and the DWP in the two closing paragraphs of Amelia Gentleman’s article, I recommend Atos Miracles on Facebook, where campaigners are posting all kinds of relevant articles, as well as providing personal accounts of their experiences with Atos, and with their appeals. Their page explains their name as follows: “A place for the sick and disabled to share stories of how ATOS have cured them. Many sites on this subject have been threatened with legal action by the company and this is a place of satire — which we are hoping is not yet outlawed in the UK.”

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, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    And don’t forget the petition to the British government, if you’re in the UK: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll share this later. I would have been on your page more often, but I got involved with the anti-Atos people. You’ll understand that I can’t let go of this.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I fully understand, George. I’ve been feeling guilty about not having written more recently, just to do my little bit to try and raise awareness. The Atos Miracles page is excellent, and your contributions have been great. I’ve also been noticing that what’s persistently heartbreaking are disabled people’s first-hand accounts of dealing with these butchers: http://www.facebook.com/pages/ATOS-Miracles/259364897425986

  4. Pat Onions says...

    Thank you for given Pat’s Petition so ,much publicity. Greatly appreciated. Pat x

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Pat, you are welcome. It is the very least that I can do. Those dealing with Atos and their cruel Tory masters are in my mind constantly.

  6. Sarah Ismail says...

    Hi Andy,

    Many thanks for your support of the cause and of my article/s. However please note, you have spelt my name wrong.

    Best wishes
    Sarah Ismail

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Very sorry, Sarah. My internal proofreader was obviously on the blink. Hurriedly corrected!
    Thanks for your work!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Sharing this now, Andy. A good piece and thanks for mentioning ATOS Miracles. I admire and like these people quite a lot. I doubt that I could retain my sense of humour in any of their situations.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, George. It is extraordinary that people can retain their sense of humour when up against such a rigged, uncaring system. Sadly, not everyone can cope, as we have also been learning from the stories of those poor people who have been destroyed by their experiences. At the Atos protest on August 31 in London, my wife overheard an Atos employee complaining that she was just doing her job, and that the company didn’t initiate the review process, as it was the government that did so. I thought then, as I do now, that it was the “Nuremberg defense” – she was “just following orders.” Sadly, far too many people do jobs that ought to keep them awake at night because, as societies, we no longer seem to have a moral compass. And that, of course, is how the really dark and dangerous societal shifts begin …

  10. Call Time on This Wretched Government and Its Assault on the … « Facebook Disabled My Account says...

    […] Permanent Link […]

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    That’s right. In law it’s called the “superior orders” defence. It was ruled invalid at Nuremberg and at other places since then. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_orders

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Yes, and all my adult life I have watched as people who should have had values have demonstrated that, for 30 pieces of silver, they were prepared to adopt a lifestyle allegedly devoid of troublesome issues like empathy or concern for others. The left became the right, the right moved further to the right, and now a dangerously large number of people can’t remember why there was ever supposed to have been such a thing as society – or the common good. And that’s truly dangerous, because, of course, under this way of thinking, people who don’t have jobs – for whatever reasons – simply don’t deserve any support.

  13. The Prime Minister understands disability for the rich – but not for the poor « Save Disability Benefits and Services says...

    […] Call Time on This Wretched Government and Its Assault on the Disabled – Andy Worthington […]

  14. David Lavery says...

    I am a mentally disabled and living in fear of our cruel government. i wish i had know about the petition so i could have signed it and got others to help. I have been waiting for something to happen to stop bullying of disabled and i missed it. But i want to thank pat onion for being the only person with humanity to try and help us. I hope we can have another petition.I wish i could thank her.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi David,
    Thank you for the honest, heartfelt comments about how this wretched government makes you live in fear. They are the most disgusting and disgraceful people to have held high office in my lifetime, and I hope we are soon to be rid of them, to be replaced by a government that remembers that a country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people. How sad that this seems like such an uphill struggle right now.

  16. Thomas says...

    I really don’t want to be forced to either totally depend on my parents or to have to money launder (only scammers would want to employ me) but I might have to if ATOS gets me.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Sorry to hear that, Thomas. This flint-hearted government doesn’t care about the human cost of its policies …

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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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