Justice for the Sick and Disabled

I rarely get angry, but the current political situation in the United Kingdom is something that has been making me very angry. At present, the rhetoric and policy surrounding sick and disabled people has been devastating to a population already more likely to live in poverty. State benefits needed by disabled people to meet the added costs that having a disability brings, as well as benefits to aid those too sick to work, are being slashed. The excuse for this is that there are a large number of “scroungers” and “fakers” on these benefits.

I am currently on ESA (Employment & Support Allowance). This is a benefit designed for those too sick to work. I have written about my ESA story here, and my tribunal here.

At the moment, when a sick person (who has been officially confirmed as too sick to work by a General Practitioner, and most likely by a specialist as well) presents themselves for ESA they are given a 6 week period of grace before being assessed. I have no problem with people being assessed – for the dual purpose of making sure people are not claiming when they are not entitled either through having recovered (as many do) or because they were trying to defraud the system and had somehow gulled their doctor. However, the assessment that sick people are taken to is run by a private French company called Atos who are given incentives to find people “fit for work”. In fact, they find up to 2 in 3 people fit for work. (Source: The Daily Mirror) The way they do this is simple – when you go for assessment you are faced with a medial professional (doctor, nurse, midwife, physio) who has no specialist training in, say, mental health (as in my case) but has received a few weeks training in the area. They have a list of set questions corresponding to a computer programme whose tickbox questionnaire (taking from 20mins to 2 hours) effectively decides the fate of that person’s claim. Tom Pollard, who works for Mind, the mental health charity, stated:

“Often our experience suggests that the assessment is almost designed to ensure that it is catching out those people that might overplay things… to catch out scroungers. We often hear about people being asked slightly opaque questions… ‘Do you watch Eastenders? ‘ And staff will extrapolate from that, that person will be able to sit repeatedly and reliably for 30 minutes. That’s not quite straight from our point of view. It would be better to have an open conversation, where you don’t need to cloak the questions,” he said. “We don’t believe that people overplay their symptoms or conditions; that doesn’t line up with our experiences of the situation; they’re more likely to underplay it if anything.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Large numbers of people appeal against the decision that they are “fit for work” (as I did) and 40% win those appeal – 70% of people who have representation at the appeal win. I won my appeal, though in my area of the country no one would represent me at my hearing. This costs the state £50 million a year. In an article in The Guardian it was reported that not only charities, but MPs and a select committee have expressed concerns about the assessments and their accuracy. Atos is not fit for purpose, is a waste of money and is causing distress to many disabled people.

In many cases waiting for an assessment and attending one causes great stress and anxiety – something which may exacerbate a condition. In fact, there have been 21 suicides reported as a result of the stress of ESA assessment, appeal and so on, with 32 deaths a week of those who have been declared eligible for ESA but placed in the Work Related Activity Group (which prepares people for work and can also place them on Workfare). For more, see Calum’s List and this article in the Mirror.

ESA is meant to help people – but the assessments are too harsh – look on the internet for the many tales of inaccuracies and lies that are told at assessments, and they waste money by being appealed and won so often. That is ignoring the human cost of the added stress and the fear that many sick and disabled people live in that their means of sustenance will be taken from them.

In addition the right-wing media, prompted by the DWP Press Office, delights in reporting the cases of those who have fraudulently claimed benefit, particularly DLA. I know less about DLA, probably because I do not receive it (although I have been told I am entitled). I do know, however, that the DWP’s recorded rate of fraud on this benefit is 0.5% – whereas, thanks to the media, the general public thinks the fraud rate is 70%. (as reported in “Bad News For Disabled People“) It has now become normal for the media to describe disabled people as “scroungers”, and there has been a rise in disabled hate crime, as The Independent reports:

The number of disability hate crimes reported to police has reached a record high, sparking concerns that the Coalition’s “anti-scrounger” rhetoric is fuelling hostility to the most vulnerable members of society. A total of 1,942 disability hate crimes were recorded by police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year.

It is important to note that DLA is NOT an out-of-work benefit, as ESA is – it is there to offset the costs of having a disability, and it was as such that David Cameron claimed it for his disabled son, despite Cameron being a millionaire.

Disabled people are already facing obstacles that the temporarily able do not face, whether that be by reason of mental or physical disability (or both). We as a society have betrayed the principles of the welfare state by failing to adequately insure those who are sick and disabled. The disabled already face far greater barriers to work – with a survey reporting that only 8% of employers are prepared to hire someone who has ever claimed sickness benefit!

I do understand that we as a society are lacking in money – but why pick on the ill? Why not pick on the wealthy instead? What have we become, as a society, that we allow the disabled to be hated, to be misrepresented, to be stressed out and made ill by assessments that do not even serve the purpose they are designed for? I would urge anyone who reads this to support disability groups such as

We Are Spartacus: http://wearespartacus.org.uk/
The Black Triangle Campaign http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/ and sign
Pat’s Petition to the Government :http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968 . Please also consider writing to your MP.

I realise that I have not included any specifically Christian content here – but I would like to point out that we serve a God of justice, and who had compassion on the sick. We may not be able to heal like Christ did, but we can ensure that the sick and disabled have a life of dignity and peace. The Lord who stood with the outcasts of society, with the “useless” and “sinful”, would surely stand by disabled people today, who are faced with stigma, anti-disabled rhetoric and poor life situations by reason not just of their disability itself but also because the Coalition (who claim Christianity) and by the Labour government before them, choose to pick on the weakest of society and make them bear the brunt of the cuts.

May Christ – who himself became disabled, impaired in his hands and feet, lead us toward justice in this country for those who need our help.

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