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".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.