When George Osborne was booed at the Paralympics it was the clearest expression yet of the anger building up against the Tory / Liberal coalition’s welfare reforms, and their treatment of disabled people and those who are ill.
The death of cancer patient Cecilia Burns on 27 August and her treatment by the benefits system managed by the Department for Work and Pensions and in part the private company ATOS Healthcare illustrates the nightmare situation anyone can find themselves in if they become disabled or fall ill.
While undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Cecilia approached the state for help. She was subjected to the new Work Capability Assessment (WCA) system that was introduced in October 2008 alongside Employment and Support Allowance. This resulted from New Labour’s long-term policy of reducing the numbers on incapacity benefits by one million.
The WCA, which is administered by ATOS, usually lasts about 15 minutes and uses a points system that looks at how a person is able to function physically, intellectually and socially. This assessment is so flawed that at their conference in May 2012, representatives of Britain’s 44,000 General Practitioners voted to campaign to end it.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, Cecilia was badly let down and told despite her ongoing treatment she was ‘fit to work’. Her benefits were reduced by about £30 a week. At a time when Cecilia should have been allowed to concentrate on her health and be free of pressure, she had to appeal this decision. Her appeal was successful and she had her benefits restored a few weeks before her death.
Cecilia said herself:
I was treated badly. I’ve been working since I was 17, I’ve paid all my stamps, all my National Insurance. The only time I was ever sick was when I was pregnant with my two sons. It has had a financial effect on me but it’s more (that) they’re getting away with it. They are just treating you like a second class citizen. That’s how I feel – that I don’t count, I don’t matter.”
What Cecilia Burns went through could easily be experienced by your mum, dad, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter, partner or you.
Even those disabled and ill people who are assessed as being unfit for work are facing the prospect of fines of £71 a week if they fail to take part in work-related activities such as training or ‘condition management programmes’.
At present about 70,000 claimants lose some or all of their benefits every month when they are sanctioned. The WCA is resulting in people being found fit to work who very few employers would ever consider giving a job to. People with moderate and mild learning disabilities, long-term and enduring mental health problems, and other complex conditions find it difficult to understand or complete the tasks demanded by the jobseekers benefit system. They face losing benefits for months for failing to do enough to find work they’ll never get.
Disabled people have had enough and are fighting back. Disabled People Against Cuts organised 21 protests against ATOS on 28 August, and several other high profile protests in London during the Paralympics.
ATOS has made hundreds of millions from running the Work Capability Assessment for the DWP, and is now about to heap more misery as they reassess millions of disabled people for the new Personal Independence Payments. We call for the WCA and recent Welfare Reform Acts to be scrapped, the DWP’s contracts with ATOS to end immediately, and the introduction of a more humane and compassionate welfare system.
One person’s nightmare……
I became disabled when I was hit by a car during my first year at University. The collision put me in a critical condition with multiple injuries including a severe brain injury. I survived the accident but was left with permanent disabilities as well as suffering from epilepsy.
I had wanted to study Law and become a Solicitor, but my disabilities have made that impossible. In fact my disabilities, combined with the psychological trauma I suffered, have meant that I haven’t worked since my accident.
Until recently I was claiming two benefits, Disability Living Allowance as well as Incapacity Benefit. My benefits didn’t amount to much but at least they allowed me to lead some kind of life. Earlier this year that all changed when ATOS called me in for a Work Capability Test.
I was so angry when I first received the letter from ATOS. After attending a Work Capability Test I was passed fit to work by ATOS and had all my benefits stopped. ATOS made their decision based on a 15 minute interview. They never contacted any of the medical professionals treating me; they never even researched my case history.
Now I face a lengthy and stressful appeals process against ATOS. I’m being treated for depression and at times have experienced suicidal thoughts. ATOS never seemed to care what affect their ruling would have on my health or on the health of those around me.
A DPAC North East member