The least cynical way of looking at the reports from sick and disabled people subjected to Work Capability Assessments, would be that it is unfortunate that so many have gone to appeal. However, people who conduct these assessments should be medically trained. They should be able to think critically. So why is it that those people are able to ask questions in the WCA so unthinkingly? Does it reveal something about them as people? Or does it reveal more about the system itself that encourages and rewards their behaviour? Does it reveal this government’s intent? Does it give an indication on how keenly it feels the need to be compassionate?
The policy of WCAs was introduced by the Blair government. It was implemented under Brown in 2008, in order to reassess those people with conditions that could get better. The narratives pushed by the Conservatives at that time, whilst in opposition, was that Labour were not tough on “benefit cheats”. This narrative, ruthlessly exploited by the right wing press, had caused a policy shift toward the end of Blair’s tenure. The idea that getting better from a physical or mental conditions immediately made you a benefit cheat was an insidious one. But it took hold. It is an idea that has had a deep impact on our society. To the point where incidents of discrimination and violence against disabled people has been worryingly high since 2010.
At the point in 2008 where this policy was introduced, it was decided that the assessment process would be outsourced. Companies including ATOS, Capita, and latterly Maximus have all administered these contracts and have been found to be carrying out assessments that deliberately ignore people’s conditions, and symptoms. As highlighted by the tweet above.
So it begs the question: if this situation had arisen in just one of those companies, would it be acceptable? Could it be dismissed as a culture within that company alone? These issues have been with every company though, and it means that there is only one reasonable conclusion to make. This is how the contracts are set up, and it is the political desire of the Government. If not explicitly, at least tacitly.
It took a major film from the director Ken Loach to highlight on how the benefits system was being morphed in to system of victimisation, rather than support. “I, Daniel Blake” is a film that The Left Bible recommends to everyone as essential viewing. Its message was unsurprisingly dismissed by the Tories, with James Cleverly MP telling people that the film was “not a documentary” and could be ignored as it was “made up”. The film was heavily researched and based on a raft of case studies. Ken Loach was in reality kind to the “system”. The main protagonist scored more than ten points in relation to his inability to work. This is not the case in many examples found in various support groups on facebook and other forums.
When someone very close to me was found fit for work with “zero points” despite being paralysed in one foot due to a degenerative back condition, following a spinal operation, I was personally involved with this kind of “narrative”. Her benefits were immediately stopped and she was put on job seekers allowance. She was encouraged to “find work” as a cleaner, despite chronic arthritis in her hands. It was identified that she had walked the 5m-10m from the waiting room to the office chair where the assessment was held, and that she hadn’t complained about having to sit for 30 minutes. From this evidence it had been “established that the claimant can walk 500m unaided”.
This kind of assertion can have deeply negative effects on someone. They would naturally feel inadequate against these kinds of assertions. Defeated by their conditions. This is not about “encouraging people back in to work” as the Government says. This is about threatening vulnerable people by making them more vulnerable. Testing them to see if they fight back, or wither away. It is truly callous that it is still going on at all.
The appeals process took over six months. That process ultimately found in her favour, but the overall costs must have been very expensive to the public purse. Premises, doctors, and a Judge were needed for the appeal. Had she not had the love and support of her family, as many may not, it is questionable as to what may have happened to her.
This experience was in 2014, the tweet above was from the 2nd April 2019. So in five years there has been little or no learning. Nothing has really changed. The government says that it no longer assesses people with permanent conditions. However, Downs Syndrome is a permanent condition. The same mistakes are being perpetrated. The same system is still operating in order to make money for companies rather than to support the vulnerable who need society’s protection.
It is also worth noting that the parent company for one of those WCA companies has or had donors to the tory party within its board members in 2010. So did the Tories expand this process of reassessment of claimants from those who had improving conditions to all claimants, as a way of expanding the market in which these companies operate? It certainly fits the model of Neoliberal privatisation of public services, in turn privatising the profits made from a costly and damaging policy.