The attack on sickness benefits has been going on for a number of years but has been vastly accelerated by the LibCons. This attack is both a personal and political matter for me. It has been brilliantly covered in a number of articles by HarpyMarx which I link to below. I wanted however to both produce a brief guide to the way in which the attacks have proceeded and my own encounters with the system.
In the past there were basically two kinds of benefit for those unable to work due to illness. Incapacity Benefit (IB) which was paid to those of working age and, in its original form at least, was a flat-rate, non-means tested, universal benefit paid to anyone who could produce the required medical evidence (which came from GPs, psychiatrists etc.). Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was a highly-tested benefit which was supposed to cover the additional living costs incurred by those with severe disabilities. It is fair to say that as far as it went and given the nature of the society in which we live, IB was a reasonable benefit. There were always problems with DLA because of the bureaucratic assessment process. My own experience is solely of IB. The assault on these benefits has taken two forms…
- An attempt to drive people off the benefits by making the criteria for gaining access to them much more stringent.
- A change to the nature of the benefit itself – this applies mostly to IB.
I am going to write about IB, although what has happened to DLA is at least as bad, if not worse, because I can adduce personal experience. The changing of the criteria process began under New Labour. It was swiftly recognised that in order for this to be successful the state apparatus which previously controlled access would need to be modified and the evidence of medical professionals disregarded. This was done by privatising the assessment process and bringing in a company called ATOS. Assessments would take no account of medical evidence and would be carried out either by ATOS’s own medical staff (and I have to say that in my view any doctor who goes to work for a company like this is a scumbag who is breaking the Hippocratic oath: such people do not have any excuse of needing the work as the world’s need and demand for qualified doctors is immense) or by medically untrained assessors. In both cases the exercise is basically a tick-box one wholly unsuitable to the analysis of complex conditions. In particular it cannot cope with the kaleidoscopic range of symptoms and causes which surround Mental Health issues. Over and above this there is the fact that attendance at such an interview is, in itself, an ordeal which can prove harrowing and either induce or worsen an episode of, let us say, Depression. In summary this aspect of the assault on sickness benefit amounts to the harassment and intimidation of the most vulnerable members of society; it deliberately ignores the advice of medical professionals in favour of the invasive procedures of private sector bully-boys.
When the LibCons took power the speed and reach of ATOS’s operations were hugely expanded, but they also moved on to the second strand of attack – the abolition of IB. As I have said, so far as these things go IB had been a reasonable benefit. Obviously it was therefore a prime target for abolition. IB has been replaced by Employment Support Allowance (ESA). ESA is only paid for one year unconditionally; after this period it becomes a means tested benefit. In addition one has to attend an interview which is supposed to suggest ways in which you can ‘get back to work’ and encourage you to do so. To sum up – to get ESA you now have to go through a distressing and unsound assessment procedure; if you get the benefit it will only be unconditional for a year and you still have to go and be interviewed to encourage you off the benefit.
The backdrop to this assault is a continual drip-drip-drip of attacks on ‘benefit cheats’, ‘welfare scroungers’ and so on, in which New Labour, to its shame and disgrace, colludes and sometimes participates. This assault is led by certain sections of the press in particular the disgusting Daily Mail (or Daily Fail as it is better known). This produces an increase in the isolation and alienation which those in a vulnerable situation already feel, and has produced a deterioration in public attitudes towards those with disabilities. At the same time the services on which people rely are being cut to the bone as a result of austerity measures, while the top bosses and bankers see their salaries and bonuses soar to stratospheric levels.
I am in a very fortunate position in relation to these appalling developments. While losing my benefit will be a considerable financial blow we will be able to bear it. I therefore came to a decision very early on that I would not attend any so-called ‘medical’ assessment, as this would be likely to provoke an episode and life is just too precious for me to do this knowingly when it is unnecessary. I declared this openly in a letter accompanying the last form I submitted (one had to submit a form every few years) for IB, but have not been called for assessment. My guilt about this resided in the fact that I was opting-out of fighting the system and not standing in solidarity with those who did not have my easy option. But, as with many other things, I have to weigh this against the probability of becoming ill. I was then switched from IB to ESA in April so will in any case only have the benefit for a year, as I doubt very much if I will receive much, if anything, under means testing.
Moving to ESA did mean however that I would be called for interview by the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) which happened a couple of weeks ago. I thought that, provided I was well, I could handle this as there would be no element of medical assessment. In addition at a theoretical level this interview is still within the public sector. In the event my judgement was correct as the man whom I saw was very pleasant. I was encouraged by the fact that he had a Union calendar on his desk! I made clear at the outset that I had no intention of seeking or taking work of any kind as social interaction is a trigger factor for me and I ration it pretty rigorously. His attempts to persuade me to do otherwise were therefore limited to what I imagine is the minimum he is allowed to do. I suppose the fact that I was pleasant and amiable were a bonus for him and started his week well (I was his first appointment on Monday morning), so I went away feeling I had spread a little happiness! This is not in any way to condemn those who cannot be amiable – it was very different for me because I knew that if push came to shove I was quite willing to lose the benefit. For those hundreds of thousands who are reliant on it the situation is wholly different, and their tension and anxiety is completely understandable. The whole notion that people with complex issues are going to be able to get jobs while there is mass unemployment is, in any event, laughable.
While my own experience has been tolerable I am acutely aware this is exceptional. The attack on sickness benefits is vicious and unconscionable; it is especially distressing for those with mental health issues (although there are many other individual horror stories, such as the case where they insisted that a man in a coma come for interview even after being told he was in a coma!); if one of the tests of a decent society (by a reformist, social democratic measure) is how the most vulnerable are treated then we are slipping into barbarism, and none of the major political parties is prepared to oppose that slide.