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The war on welfare scroungers, part 77

Can ministers or newspapers get their facts straight on benefit fraud, unemployment and the "work-sh

In my column in the magazine last week, I wrote:

Is this a cabinet guided by the national interest or vested interests? Not since the days of Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s has Britain been governed by politicians representing such a narrow social base. And Supermac and his millionaire colleagues at least believed in the universal welfare state. Cameron and his rich chums, in contrast, are engaged in a war on welfare.

In June, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (net worth: £1m), used an interview with the Sunday Telegraph to urge jobless people to move in order to find work ("Coalition to tell unemployed to 'get on your bike' ", was the headline). In September, Osborne (£4.6m) castigated benefit claimants for making a "lifestyle choice". Earlier this month, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (£4.5m), told poor families to have fewer children.

Since then, we've had Iain Duncan Smith with his "get on the bus to get a job" jibe. Yes, in the current economic climate, IDS seems to think that jobs can be found for most if not all the unemployed. But how do you squeeze 2.4 million people into 459,000 vacancies? Maths doesn't seem to be the coalition's strong point.

Meanwhile, right-wing newspapers, taking their lead from dubious Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) briefings, have continued to demonise the "scoungers" and "spongers" on benefits. Here is the headline in today's Daily Mail:

Seventy-five per cent of incapacity claimants are fit to work: tough new benefits test weeds out the work-shy

The "work-shy"? Nice. According to the Mail's Gerri Peev:

Three-quarters of people who applied for new benefits for the long-term sick failed tests to prove they were too ill to work.

Out of about 840,000 who tried to obtain the £95-a-week Employment and Support Allowance, 640,000 were told they were fit for work or withdrew their applications before they took the tests -- suggesting they were "trying it on".

Conveniently, the article itself makes no mention of the number of claimants who have won on appeal or the criticisms levelled at the "tough new benefits test" from a range of charities and doctors. As even the Metro managed to note, in its coverage of this story:

Lizzie Iron, Citizens Advice head of welfare policy, said 40 per cent of people who failed the assessment and then appealed won.

"Seriously ill and disabled people are being severely let down by the crude approach of the work capability assessment," she said.

The Mail does make a passing reference to the private company, Atos, which has been contracted by the DWP to conduct the work capability assessments for all new claimants of the new ESA benefit.

Those who go in front of Atos-hired doctors are tested on how far they can walk, how long they can sit and whether they can bend and touch their knees.

But, again, the Mail conveniently makes no mention at all of the various concerns that have emerged about Atos and the tests that its doctors carry out on behalf of the DWP. For example, a BBC investigation in January quoted two former Atos doctors who had "expressed concerns that the checks are being done too quickly and that the system is biased towards declaring people fit for work". And a BBC freedom of information request revealed:

. . . there are 8,000 ESA appeals heard every month. This is double the number of the next most appealed benefit, disability living allowance, which has seven times more claimants than ESA.

The TUC has identified a number of case studies who have been awarded "0 points" by Atos and declared fit to work, despite previously having been declared too ill to do so:

When they met with Atos Origin Ltd, Sue Hutchings had breast cancer and was awaiting surgery, while John Watkins had his arm in plaster from his shoulder to his fingertips following an operation.

They were moved from ESA at £96.85 a week on to JSA at £65.45 a week, losing them each £1,632.80 a year in benefit support, and forcing them to start looking for work.

These criticisms of Atos are nothing new. And I should add, of course, that Atos was first contracted by the DWP to carry out their assessments of benefit claimants under the last (New) Labour government. Her Majesty's opposition can't take the moral high ground here.

UPDATE: More Lib Dem U-turns. From the charity Mind's website:

Before the election, Lib Dem Danny Alexander, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, expressed reservations about the expansion of the new system, suggesting that "there must be a very serious concern about whether the roll-out is appropriate". He claimed at the time that the transfer of IB claimants could lead to "tens of thousands of appeals", and that this would result in "a system that then is close to meltdown".