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What does the welfare reform agenda say about us as a society? Our Dr. Katherine Trebeck blogs...

Posted by Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher

11th Mar 2012

I used to wonder whether we got the politics we deserve. But now, when reading headlines such as "'Welfare reform has us terrified' - families facing the worst speak out", it is hard not to think something has gone terribly wrong at the top.

How can policies that are already doing so much harm to the most vulnerable of our citizens be implemented, despite so much evidence that they are not just unhelpful, but so very harmful?

It must surely be about more than the welfare cutting, money saving agenda, now so closely tied to the UK Government's programme of deficit reduction. It must be because the powers-that-be simply do not understand the impact of their choices - or, at least, that's the benign explanation. Otherwise, if they do understand, they apparently don't care.

Either way, they need to read the report from our partner, the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre (CIRC), which sets out the damage being done by the health assessments being carried out by ATOS, the French company that is earning millions through its contract with the Department for Work and Pensions. It is in charge of conducting assessments of people that claim Incapacity Benefit - now Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - with a view to moving many of them off ESA and onto Job Seeker's Allowance, with its lower rate and higher conditionality.

CIRC know what they are talking about when it comes to the Employment and Support Allowance assessments: in the last year they have handled almost 500 enquiries relating to ESA, completed 160 ESA application forms on behalf of their clients, and represented 75 clients at ESA appeal tribunal hearings.

The partial nature of the assessments is evident in their report. At no stage does the ATOS examiner have access to the claimant's medical records; the assessment is based solely on a single face-to-face interview, and the contents of an application form completed by the applicant.

I'm no medical guru, but even I know that medical conditions fluctuate, and that doctors are the best people to understand how poorly people are. Surely taking into account the knowledge of a GP is the ultimate 'evidence-based policy'?

But, late last year, CIRC showed me a letter from a client's GP. It had been submitted as 'further evidence' during an assessment process. The GP wrote:

The above named lady underwent [serious surgery at the end of 2010]. Unfortunately, since then she has had significant ongoing discomfort and is unable to mobilise out without a moonboot and two crutches. She has also had a failed hip replacement. She is in constant pain and requires regular analgesia in the form of [multiple painkillers]. In my opinion, this lady is currently, and for the foreseeable future, incapable of work for clinical reasons.

ATOS ignored this letter and the CIRC client involved was declared "fit for work". If it wasn't so heartbreaking, it would be laughable.

And it is not just CIRC clients experiencing these inappropriate judgements. Health blogger Margaret McCartney writes that:

Many clients with serious health conditions have been found fit for work, including those with Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, bipolar disorder, heart failure, strokes, severe depression, and agoraphobia.

Not surprisingly, many clients appeal the initial ATOS decision (costing the state masses of money). But the appeal process is complex, drawn out and stressful. As a result many appellants simply give up their rights to ESA. Or, as CIRC has found, they die whilst they wait.

Many people have said it, but I can only hope the phrase "the mark of a civilised society is the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens" is wrong. The UK is surely better than these brutal policies that punish the most vulnerable. These people deserve more than a slap in the face by anonymous suits, who either don't know, or worse, don't care.

Originally published via the UK Poverty Post. Cartoon from Crippen's Blog at Disability Arts Online.

Blog post written by Katherine Trebeck

Senior Researcher

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Katherine Trebeck