Where is the Shame and Anger as the UK Government’s Unbridled Assault on the Disabled Continues?


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 appear 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 elites 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 the disabled.

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 the disabled, 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) 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.

31 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    In Russia, people with disabilities are in even worse 🙁

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m sure, Aleksey, with Russia having been sold the full neoliberal package when it became a free market experiment. The notion of the common good is seriously under threat everywhere.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Under threat, Andy? It’s already happening, surely.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes and no, I think, Pauline. Realistically, we still have a National Health Service, for example, paid for out of taxation, but as the cuts bite, more and more aspects of the NHS will involve treatment only for those who can afford to buy their way out of longer and longer waits for treatment paid for out of general taxation. That’s just one example, but useful I hope. The worry is that everything’s under threat – Michael Gove and his desire to privatise all state schools, the desire to privatise the police, the list goes on an on. People need to realise what it means to have a government that wants almost every aspect of our lives to be run by private companies – whose main preoccupation, of course, is to make a profit, not whatever the hell else it might be that they’re supposed to be doing.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Truthseeker Duckworth wrote:

    Where is the shame and anger? It is said that the worth of society can be measured by the manner in which it treats its weakest member. Excellent piece Andy Worthington

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul!

  7. JAN (Cosmic Surfer) says...

    Andy, sadly, we are all in the mess created by the Neo-Liberal marriage from Hell of the 1980’s. Ronnie the Con Man pretending STRONG Christian morals and The Iron Witch joined to create a bouncing baby demon world that is growing into adulthood.
    A world where the “haves” will do anything to get all the toys and the “have-nots” are assured to lose them all.

    The Neo-liberal version of EUGENICS

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes I like that, Jan – “The Neo-liberal version of EUGENICS.” When I say “like,” of course, I mean “approve.” Nothing to like about eugenics, the Anglo-Saxon racist program that was so enthusiastically embraced in the UK and the US.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Sarah Hashim wrote:

    I despair as to whats happening in the world…..i really do :0( Its always the most vulnerable that are targeted.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Donald Pratt wrote:

    Atos… sounds like one of Dr. Who’s evil foes!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Sarah Hashim wrote:

    wish it was…………….he would be easier to defeat.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Adrienne Murphy wrote:

    Yes it is happening and trust me people it is going to get worse!. I work with vulnerable adults, part of my job is being an appointee and deputy, benefits are being stripped daily, as are housing benefits etc. I really worry about the number of people with mental health, learning disabilities and other problems who will be evicted and left on the streets. What shocks me is how others don’t care at the moment. When is this country going to wake up to what is going on? At the end of the day this could happen to any of us. We need to wake up to what this government is doing before it is too late

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sarah, Donald and Adrienne. I absolutely agree, Adrienne. I know there are many things going on – people who have been encouraged to be selfish and have forgotten what empathy is, others who are too busy to stop and think, “hang on, this is so bad I need to fight it, and to encourage others to do so.” But whatever the cause, the end result is very little dissent. Hopefully when the Olympics are over, there’ll be some reflection on what it means to have no future but austerity.

  14. Bill Jones says...

    Worthington’s conflation of Christian charity with a government dole funded by money taken at the point of a gun is a perfect illustration of the degree to which the State : all powerful, ever present has destroyed civil society.
    We can only hope that the upcoming collapse of government structures in the West will result in much more modest institutions allowing more freedom for individuals of good will to benefit humanity.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    By “money taken at the point of a gun” you mean tax, I take it, Bill. However, here in the UK, most people are happy to pay for the NHS through general taxation. It’s a collective insurance scheme, you see. Without it, most people will just end up paying more for their healthcare, as they do in the US, unless they have the misfortune not to be rich, in which case it’s even worse, a complete nightmare, as many American friends of mine have explained to me. I can assure you that for most people here, the NHS is the height of a civilized society – if you get ill, you get treated, and no one asks you for money, or for evidence of your insurance, or sends you a bill for more than you earn in a month, or six months, or a year, or ten years. You keep your world, Bill. You’re welcome to it. But I’ll try to keep mine, in which a relatively small amount of GDP is used to make disabled people’s lives slightly better. Jesus would have approved, you know.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote (in response to 13 above):

    Adrienne – the real problem – apart from this callous government’s treatment of the vulnerable – is the fecking media who have been doing and are doing NOTHING to alert the public to the depths of their depravity.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Pauline. Very well put!

  18. damo68 says...

    even thatcher would never have dared touch the nhs but this lot as ive said before they hate anyone who isnt one of them or anyone whom they cant profit from in some way,as for the general public ..forget it ,there to brainwashed and dumbed down now there to taken in by the latest consumer tat and are litteraly like the liveing dead,dead from the feet up they dont care there to blinded as to wot realy going on and as is human nature they will only panic and wake up when its to late god forbid we get to that point

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    “Dead from the feet up” — if that’s not a rallying cry for people to throw off their shackles, and see how they’re being played by corporate interests and the government then I don’t know what is, Damo. Thanks.

  20. damo68 says...

    its funny andy all these differant people at differant times and in differant places have shown us how the world could or should be ,free from wars,hate,hunger,from the native american indians to ghandi,einstien,to the counterculture hippies of the 60s and the peace convoy of the 80s all shown us a world of peace thats so easy to put in place yet all weve ever done is …not listen

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, although not everyone has refused to listen, Damo. I suppose the conflict is between those who get the message, and those who seek positions of power, who couldn’t care less what Gandhi or the Native Americans believed.

  22. Liz says...

    Simply – they ARE Nazi. The Nazis HAVE taken over, we are suffering eugenics and torture – let’s fight back with all we have, for crying out loud we are a step away from seeing disabled kids killed – come on, fight for your bloody life. No kidding – act now – save a life.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    YES, Liz. Thanks. Your sense of urgency is spot-on.

  24. Jayne Pickard says...

    I am one of ATOS’s “victims”. Last August I had one of their “medicals”, where I was asked irrelevant questions and deemed fit for work with 12 points out of a maximum 15 to be deemed unfit. I appealed and in November my benefit dropped by £60 per fortnight, I had to cut back on absolutely everything, bills began to fall behind and I became virtually housebound because I couldn’t afford to go anywhere! Three weeks ago, I had my appeal heard and I won! The DWP’s decision was overturned and I’m now awaiting the reinstatement of my benefit plus back pay; today they told me there was a backlog…Oh great! Had I owed them money they would have clawed it back immediately no doubt.
    So now this new PIP benefit is threatening that I will have to go through it all again in the near future…Wonderful! This past 12 months has been terrible and I dread it happening again. My disabilities are degenerative, they won’t get any better and at 52 I should be enjoying life, not feeling as I do!

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Jayne, for telling your story. I hope this “backlog” is sorted out soon, and I hope that together we can persuade the government to stop what it is doing — or, of course, that we can remove this government entirely. It is thoroughly unacceptable that you and so many others have to keep going through test after test, even when, as in your case, your disabilities are degenerative.

  26. lynn says...

    I was granted ESA by a tribunal panel dec2010 following an atos assessment awarding me 0 points in may2010. I was called up for another assessment may2011 and despite having the assistance of the local CAB office I was again declared fit for work with 0 points despite the deteriation in my health . I have just had the tribunal following my appeal stating how could I lose the 18 points awarded in dec2010. I was hopeful that I would win and reassured by the video by the tribunal services and my previous experience. However, despite the Judge and the Doctor stating they were not out to trick me and my statement that my memory was not good due to my illness, they asked questions which were already answered in the paperwork supplied with my appeal forms, You have to answer based on how you were at the time of the assessment not how you are currently and they got me so confused I even forgot to look at the copy of my paperwork taken with me and gave answers that would have been relevant to the previous appeal instead of the current one. I got their decision 3 days later stating I had lost and I have now applied for their reasons and the Judges notes in the small hope I can appeal to the upper tribunal. This time round was so different from the last tribunal I wonder if they have now been told like atos that they have to turn the majority down due to the embarrassment of so many cases being won at appeal especially with CAB backing, My Gp is concerned about the amount of stress I am suffering as it is having a detrimental effect on my health. I have had to reapply as I cannot work but have little hope of getting the backpay that would have been owed to me had I won which could have been the plan all along.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for telling your story, Lynn – another example of this terrible process that shouldn’t be happening at all. I hope it’s not the case that pressure is being exerted in the courts regarding the appeals process, but we will need to wait and see if other reports emerge. It would not surprise me if the government is trying not to lose face as ministers seem obsessed with cutting support for disabled people as a matter of policy. And equally, I am determined to do my part to make sure that they will be remembered as the cruellest of politicians …

  28. Element Fury says...

    Hi Andy, good article… my parents were called for a medical by Atos, my mum scored 0 points and then died a few weeks later… we still greive the loss of a beautiful woman as is still so fresh in our minds (2 months) she was also failed by the hospital who treated her like a waste of a bed.

    our whole system is corrupt.

    I am also going to locate a copy of your book battle of the beanfield… my father joined the peace convoy and was there at the beanfield that day, I have been told many a terrible story from that time. (But also many nice stories from him prior to the attack on that first day).

    Peace and love x

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Ellie, albeit under such terrible circumstances. I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It’s another example of how this government really doesn’t believe it has a duty of care for the population of this country – only for the rich – and how it is determined to play on people’s wretched meanness of spirit – one of the worst traits of our fellow citizens – to make out that anyone poor or ill is actually some sort of worthless scrounger, and not a “hard-working tax-payer.
    Also interesting that your dad was at the Beanfield. There’s a lesson from that period of Tory history that people should be awake to, but they seem to be too busy fermenting in their own self-absoption to realise that the Tories are always the enemy of ordinary working people, and that this lot are the most dangerous of the lot.

  30. Element Fury says...

    Thank you for your condolences, it was an absolute shambles of a night in the hospital, from the nurses admitting she was on the wrong Ward when it was too late to there being no consultants on staff and only juniors there, terrible bed side manner never mind no bed bath for 3 day and many many other fatal mistakes. My mum worked harder than most men I know (heavy duty landscaping) and paid her way in life till she could no longer work because of the strains of that nature of work on their backs. They both were classed as disabled and yet my family get no help from the government. Just an endless amount of stress. It’s disgusting. All my life my father has told tales from the convoy and I agree with him that these days people don’t respect the way they live and that in his view, the convoy was the perfect way of living, he was just glad that during the battle of beanfield he was able to at least help a few people from it. Although it has certainly had a lasting effect on himself, still vividly remembering every brutal beating and woman and children screaming for their lives. I am very proud that my father was a part of it, even though it shouldn’t have happened. All they wanted was a free festival for the people who appreciated the stones and one year away they took that away from not only them there at that point but also from us still here today. X

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, that’s very sad, Ellie. Thanks for sharing the story, but what a disgrace. And now here we are, in the face of apathy, or worse, trying to make sure that people realise that the government doesn’t care about them.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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