The End of Decency: Tories to Make Disabled People Work Unpaid for Their Benefits


What is wrong with the people of Britain? For two and a half years now, the Tory-led coalition government has been waging war on the most vulnerable members of society — the disabled — and hardly anyone seems to care. In order to cut the welfare bill, the government is paying a fortune to Atos Healthcare, a French-based multinational company, to conduct reviews of disabled people in order to find them fit for work, whether they are or not.

This process, which necessitates cruelty and indifference on the part of the assessors, is hugely stressful for the people subjected to the reviews, and has contributed to hundreds of deaths since it was first introduced (also see here and here for links to some harrowing stories).

I have been campaigning against it for the last two years — see, for example, my articles, Today the Tories Took £100 A Week from Some of the UK’s Most Disabled People: How Can This Be Right?, RIP Karen Sherlock, Another Victim of the Tories’ Brutal, Heartless Disability Reforms, Doctors Urge Government to Scrap Callous Disability Tests, Where is the Shame and Anger as the UK Government’s Unbridled Assault on the Disabled Continues? and Call Time on This Wretched Government and Its Assault on the Disabled.

Now the government has come up with a new plan, which dovetails with its treatment of the unemployed in general, in which young people, primarily, are being forced into “workfare” arrangements — in other words, are being made to work for their benefits on placements, which, shockingly, are often with multinational companies. This ought to be unacceptable, but it appears to be a logical extension of the culture of employing people as unpaid “interns” that plagues the workplace, even though it takes things a step further, making people work for nothing for companies they have no interest in, rather than in fields they actively want to pursue.

Apart from a short probationary period — say a month at most — no one should be taking advantage of the unemployed to pay them nothing — or to make them work for around £1 an hour — and yet this is now becoming the norm, a world in which the unemployed have become a source of insultingly cheap labour, and sanctions are imposed for any failures by the unemployed to jump through the required hoops and, if necessary, be corporate slaves.

The government’s clampdown on the unemployed has always been one of its most hateful policies, as there is no excuse for punishing people for being unemployed during a recession, when there is only one job for every five claimants. That remains the case, and it is depressing to realise how successfully the government has managing to sell a message that the unemployed are all workshy scroungers to the public, whose appetite for hating the poor and vulnerable is as reprehensible as their political masters’ cynicism and disdain for those less fortunate than themselves.

From tomorrow, according to the government’s new plan, workfare is to be rolled out for the disabled, as Shiv Malik explained in an important article for the Guardian on Friday, which I’m cross-posting below.

Particularly noteworthy, I thought, are the passages pointing out how the mandatory work programmes are complete failures — successful only in transferring taxpayers’ money to private companies like Emma Harrison’s discredited a4e — even though they continue to be taken up enthusiastically — by London’s mayor Boris Johnson, who wants 18-24 year olds to work for three months unpaid, and in Derbyshire, where 18-24 year olds will be made to work for six months unpaid to secure their benefits.

Also significant, in relation to the unemployed, is the Department of Work and Pensions’ claim that the unpaid work should be “of community benefit.” This might sound acceptable, but it is clear that it is a ruse, that private contractors are being brought on board without scrutiny, and that, in fact, there will be no attempt whatsoever to police what happens — a recipe for disabled people dying in unsuitable workplaces while being exploited by inappropriate employers.

Also deeply shocking — perhaps the most shocking aspect of the whole sordid story — is the DWP’s confirmation that “the work placements do not have any time limit.”

No time limit? Is that for real?

Please read the article below, and then get involved. Tomorrow (December 3), please join other campaigners in a day of remembrance for the victims of Atos and the government, and please urge your MP to sign the Early Day Motion put forward by John McDonnall MP, which states:

That this House wishes to record the case of Mr Brian McArdle who, having suffered a blood clot on his brain, was left paralysed on one side, unable to speak properly and blind in one eye and yet was summoned to an Atos work capacity assessment, before which he suffered a further stroke and was eventually informed he was to lose his disability benefits; notes with sadness that Mr McArdle died from a heart attack the day after his benefits were stopped and that his 13 year old son Kieran wrote to Atos to tell the company that their assessments ‘are killing genuine people like my dad’; and appreciates why disability campaigners like Susan Archibald are calling for the suspension of Atos assessments, and why Jim Moore and other campaigners are calling for 3 December to be a day of remembrance for all Atos victims.

Also keep an eye out for the Twitter hashtag #wowpetition, which stand for “War on Welfare.” There’s also a website here, where various campaigners are currently finalising the wring for a new e-petition, to be launched soon.

Sick and disabled braced for enforced work-for-benefits programme
By Shiv Malik, The Guardian, November 30, 2012

Welfare claimants could be forced to work without pay and be stripped of benefits under scheme starting on Monday

Wayne Blackburn was born unlucky — his mother’s umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck, starving his brain of oxygen. Now his legs don’t work.

“Imagine the worst cramp you’ve ever had,” he says. “That’s in both my legs 24/7 … I literally walk a few steps and I’m in agony.”

Blackburn, 36 has degenerative spastic diplegia, a type of cerebral palsy. He knows he will have a good day when he gets four hours of sleep. On a bad night he screams in pain and between the tears he hardly sleeps at all.

He’s no scrounger, he says. Until 2009, Blackburn, from Nelson, Lancashire, was in work. After marrying his girlfriend he wanted to provide for her so he took a job in retail that involved being on his feet.

“For a time I was quite successful at it,” he says. “[But] it made me a lot worse. I did that for just under two years.” Though he would like to return to a job, Blackburn says he is in the worst physical condition he has ever been and is permanently dosed on multiple painkillers.

Without any physical examination, Blackburn says, the Department for Work and Pensions put him on employment support allowance (ESA) and in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those soon to be back in employment.

Like tens of thousands of others in the WRAG, Blackburn feels that the assessment process is desperately flawed and that he should not have been put into that group because there is no way he can take a job at this time.

Despite this, in just a few days, Blackburn may be forced to work without pay whether he likes it or not.

On Monday, the government will allow private back-to-work companies and jobcentre case managers to force Blackburn and more than 300,000 sick and disabled welfare claimants into unpaid work experience for an unspecified length of time.

Also from that day — the UN’s international day of persons with disabilities — if those in WRAG who have illnesses ranging from cancer to paralysis to mental health issues do not comply with such instructions, they can be stripped of up to 70% of their benefits and forced to live on £28.15 a week.

According to the latest figures, between 1 June 2011 and 31 May 2012 there were 11,130 conditionality sanctions applied to ESA WRAG claimants. The average length of such sanction is seven weeks.

Blackburn says he is now “petrified”. “They could call me in on Monday and say ‘right, you’ve got do to this, this and this’. And if I don’t, they can sanction me and that scares me … it makes me so nervous, it makes me physically sick.”

Mandatory work exists for those who are not sick. Tens of thousands of unemployed people have passed through four weeks’ unpaid placements on the mandatory work activity (MWA) scheme.

More have passed through the work programme, which this week was found to have utterly failed to meet its benchmark targets to get the long-term unemployed back to lasting employment.

The MWA scheme also does not work. The DWP’s most recent study is clear about its efficacy: it has zero effect on increasing people’s chances of getting a job. Nevertheless, the idea of forcing those on benefits to undertake weeks and months of unpaid work has spread. In August the London mayor, Boris Johnson, announced he was using European social fund money to force 18- to 24-year-olds to commit themselves to 13 weeks of unpaid work.

A few weeks ago Derbyshire job centres said they would be making their 18-24 year olds work for six months unpaid as a condition of their benefits.

Leaked this week, the DWP memo that permits those who are sick and disabled to also be forced into unpaid work is clear: “It has now been agreed work programme providers will be able to use mandatory work placements as another measure through which to help ESA WRAG participants move closer to the labour market.

“If a work programme provider identifies a suitable participant and ensures the work placement is of community benefit, they can mandate them in the usual way.”

The DWP confirmed with the Guardian that the work placements do not have any time limit.

The phrase “for community benefit” is oblique; since February the DWP has stopped answering freedom of information requests about where people are being sent to work – even when instructed to do so by the information commissioner – because it fears the MWA scheme will collapse under the weight of public protest if details are released.

Under further questions from the Guardian the DWP has admitted that although placements are meant to be for community benefit, private, profit-seeking companies can participate in the scheme.

The DWP said: “Although the department does not rule out the possibility that placements in the private sector could meet the requirement for placements to be of benefit to the local community, it is likely that the majority of mandatory work activity placements will be outside the private sector.”

Ingeus Deloitte and Seetec, two of the larger companies involved in administering MWA, have refused to comment on whether they are forcing unemployed people to work for private companies but said they abided by the “community benefit” rule.

This month, one of the biggest charities known to be involved in MWA, the British Heart Foundation, said that it was pulling out of the programme. The charity said it was offered cash incentives by private companies running the programme if it took on jobseekers. The BHF refused such payments, as it would have meant the charity being paid while its volunteers — in desperate need of a job — worked for no pay in return.

“Our involvement in work programme schemes has always been about finding people who want to work in our shops, rather than providing a source of income for the charity. As such, we tell BHF staff to decline payments from agencies” Retail Director, Mike Taylor, said.

Ingeus and Seetec said they did not offer inducements to organisations for taking on unpaid jobseekers.

The DWP said it was not troubled by this practice: “We pay providers to find us placements, it’s up to them what arrangement they make with organisations who will take someone on.”

The new policy of involving sick and disabled people in mandatory work activity has raised similar concerns at Cancer Research UK, which is also pulling out of mandatory schemes from the new year. “We have made the decision to no longer offer any ad hoc local arrangements for anyone on the mandatory work activity placement scheme from 1 January 2013,” said Simon Ledsham, director of trading.

The disability charity Scope, which has taken on unemployed people on mandatory placements under a set of internal practices, is now urgently reviewing its involvement and may also pull out.

“People that do work experience in our shops tell us they really value the chance to learn retail and customer service skills, build confidence and get used to being in a working environment,” said chief executive Richard Hawkes.

“But these developments raise some very serious questions about providing work experience placements for people who have to undertake the activity as part of the Government’s back-to-work scheme.

“We are carrying out an urgent review into whether it remains the right thing for us to do to offer work experience in this particular context.”

Shadow employment minister, Labour’s Stephen Timms also told the Guardian that the new policy of mandatory placements was “a recipe for disaster”.

“We know that a large group of people declared to be capable of returning to work are in fact not.  Forcing them into mandatory jobs is a recipe for disaster”, Timms said

“Ministers need to focus first on fast and fundamental reform, and to get the basics right.”

Explaining the policy, employment minister Mark Hoban said: “Some people on sickness benefits haven’t worked for a long time or may not have had many jobs, which will make it harder for them to find work in the future.

“Work experience is a very good way to increase someone’s confidence and get them ready for their move into a job when they are well enough.”

The minister added: “People on sickness benefits who do all they can to improve their chances of moving back into a job have nothing to worry about.

“They will get their benefits and we will do all we can to help. But in the small number of cases where people refuse to stick to their part of the bargain, it’s only right there are consequences.”

Note: For more of my photos from the protest against Atos Healthcare on August 31, see here (and here).

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.

53 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Joe. Yes, what we need is a government committed to creating jobs, not spending a fortune on rip-off firms that don’t actually find jobs for people. The A4e scandal was particularly illuminating, I thought, with that wretched Emma Harrison woman taking millions for nothing.

  2. Marcus says...


    I agree with all this.

    I use to work for A4e as a temp, after graduating uni, in there head office. I did not have a clue what it was all about as i was simply wanting to fill the gap in before i went on to my career as a Sports therapist. It was full off aggressive sales type people and they were always banging on about that Emma women. The management would spend a day a week at her place in Cheshire. They always came back with stories of how amazing it was and how it was like something about of Hollywood. I always remember how there was a mention of Footballers in nearly every conversation and how they would all have parties at ‘Emma’s. I only realized years after what a greedy selfish parasitic organisation it was run by a greedy bitch. If i knew then i would never have worked for such an unethical set up.Interesting how Footballers are always around where greed, ostentatious wealth and decadence are flourishing. Footballers and those words go hand in hand.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Marcus. That’s a very powerful story. Thanks for sharing it.

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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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