George Osborne’s workfare policy threatens to lump all claimants together, just as Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit takes the same broad brush to those in need of benefits. Of the 200,000 people who are long-term unemployed, how many sick and disabled people will be forced to undertake community work, attend a jobcentre every day or go on an intensive training programme?
The rally in London on Saturday commemorating the 10,000-plus sick and disabled people who have died since the Atos-administered work capability assessments began is a straw in the wind. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that between January and November 2011 10,600 people died during, or within six weeks, of being put through the work capability assessment (WCA). The WCA decides people’s entitlement to benefit based on a tick-box system that is unable to assess complex impairments and mental health issues. According to the British Medical Association 40% of assessments are overturned on appeal, rising to 70% for those who manage to get legal representation.
Nor does the welfare reform bill look like making life any easier for sick and disabled people. Those on employment and support allowance who want to appeal against a decision will be forced to claim jobseeker’s allowance or go without benefits, possibly for months, under section 102 and schedule 11 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. Their claims used to continue until the appeal was heard. Not any more.
OK, maybe the Tories have got a point, you think. All of these people on benefits – it can’t be good for the economy, can it? Surely the sick and disabled should be encouraged to work? Surely simplifying benefits and treating all claimants the same will save the taxpayer millions? But at what cost?
Last week saw the grotesque “mental patient” Halloween costumes go on sale at Asda and Tesco, then their rapid withdrawal after an outcry on social media. Perhaps Jack Dee summed up the outrage and incredulity felt by the “mental patients” themselves: “Just bought my Halloween costume. Going as managing director of Asda.” All of this takes place against increasing hostility towards the sick and disabled: 1,942 disability hate crimes were recorded by police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland one year after the coalition started governing “in the national interest”, and disability hate crime has doubled since the start of the financial crisis.
Last year the Glasgow Media Trust found the public believed that between 50% and 70% of those on disability benefits were fraudulent. The actual number is likely to be between 1% and 2%. The same report found that there has been a tripling in the use of words such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” in tabloid stories on disability in the past five years.
And then there’s Eric Pickles. The communities and local government minister has been caught on tape telling his constituent Teresa Cooper to “adjust your medication”. Cooper claims she was abused at the Kendall House care home in Kent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Is Pickles qualified to pronounce on medication?
On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday David Cameron said he didn’t want to get into an argument with the “mental health lobby”. Too late, Dave. If you’re going to herd the sick and disabled on to jobseeker’s allowance so that they have to sign on every day, to create a climate in which supermarket chains think nothing of flogging “mental patient” Halloween outfits, where your ministers tell their constituents to “adjust their medication”, and you attack your opponents for being “fruitcakes” and “nuts” then you’re going to get very little sympathy from the one in four people who have had mental health problems and the sick and disabled in general. You may think picking on the most vulnerable people in society is a vote-winner – think again.
I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the 1922 Committee as the miners’ strike escalated. “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” As the Tories commemorate “Our Maggie” what about commemorating the 10,000 people Saturday’s rally gathered to remember? Labour said last week, “We’re better than this”. The Conservatives seem to be saying, “We’re better than you”.