Welfare ‘reform’ – or abolition?

Ten years ago this week, the 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom who were claiming incapacity benefit began to receive letters asking them to attend a work capability assessment. Linda Burnip looks at what happened next.

Incapacity Benefit, introduced in 1995, wasn’t without problems for disabled people as many were forced to undergo a Personal Capability Assessment to establish whether their condition had improved, and if it had, benefit payments could be withdrawn.  At least, however, this test was carried out by medical professionals employed by the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than being an assessment based on a computer tick-box exercise which is the case for the much-discredited replacement: the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

Possibly the most shocking thing about the hated tick-box Work Capability Assessment, carried out by Atos, is the fact that it was introduced by a Labour government in 2008. However, this seems to have been planned by Labour since 2003, according to a Freedom of Information request showing they advertised the healthcare assessment Notice of Contract with the Department for Work and Pensions in that year. At this stage, in 2008, only new claimants were affected – yet Labour also had in place plans to extend this to all Incapacity Benefit claimants by 2014.

In March 2010 the Social Security Advisory Committee raised concerns about the continuing roll-out plans for ESA and in particular expressed concerns about the safety of disabled people with Mental Health conditions and Learning Difficulties. Both Labour and later the Coalition government ignored these concerns and pushed ahead with their plans to ‘reform’ welfare. This was even before knowing the findings and recommendations of the first review of the WCA, in spite of academics predicting a disaster with 600,000 claimants forced off Incapacity Benefits and found fit for work.

Fast forward then to a Coalition government intent on removing as many people as possible from entitlement to disability benefits and social security payments by implementing a plan to reassess all remaining Incapacity Benefit claimants.

This mass reassessment programme affecting one-and-a-half million disabled people began in early 2011 and was not effectively completed until 2016. It used an updated version of the Work Capability Assessment. Recipients confirmed as having limited capability for work were transferred onto ESA. Anyone found fully capable of work had their Incapacity Benefit payments stopped and were forced to apply for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) instead.

Together with these draconian ‘reforms’ of our social security safety net there was a vicious campaign to make the social security system harsher, with the use of conditionality and sanctions – that is, to remove their benefits and leave people without any source of income – against disabled and other claimants. This sanctioning regime helped intensify the toxicity of the Work Capability Assessments and left many disabled people, often those with a Mental Health condition, destitute and suicidal. By 2013 more than one million sanctions, a rise of about 345 % above their 2001-08 average level, were handed out.

These policy changes saw the performance of jobcentre staff measured by “off-benefit flows”, the number of claimants who stopped receiving an out-of-work benefit. This was regardless of whether or not they were then in work or had any other source of income.

Activists have always known what was happening to claimants, but now recently published research from Sheffield Hallam University has proven that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff and managers set out to indiscriminately inflict psychological harm on benefit claimants, engaging in unofficial sanctioning targets and pushing disabled people into work despite the risk to their health. Within the DWP, violence against claimants was normalised.

In the research one Job Centre Plus worker described how staff would often treat claimants with ‘disrespect’ and use psychological harm as a technique to reduce the number of people claiming benefits. This pressure was reinforced by rags like the Daily Mail, Express and Sun which took delight in ramping up the ‘scrounger’ rhetoric and questioning whether people really were disabled, especially those with an invisible impairment.

Since 2015, which is the date this research goes up to, nothing has improved and there have been far too many avoidable deaths of claimants due to the hostile behaviour of DWP staff towards them. Too many disabled people have died from starvation due to their social security payments being removed, because they were unable to cope with the attitudes of staff or jump through the hoops expected of them, as there is no safety net in place to prevent harm.

In a post-pandemic world this must change and the attempted abolition of our welfare state must end. If non-disabled people have learnt nothing else from the past 12 months they must now surely know that anyone can become disabled at any time and one day that may be them.

Linda Burnip is co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts.

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