No section of the population has suffered worse abuses from the government over the last 5 years than disabled people – those who are least able to bear it. They are subject to assessments about their capability to work, enforced by Atos at the behest of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which in thousands of cases grotesquely ignore the patent inability of many severely disabled people who cannot conceivably find work in their current circumstances.
They can then be deprived of all benefit income for at least 4 weeks (and for 3 months the second time round) and thus made destitute if they have been late for appointments or are considered by Atos/DWP not to be making enough job searches or for what are clearly trivial infringements of draconian DWP rules. In many such cases claimants do not understand why they’ve been penalised. If as a result of being deprived of all income they experience severe financial hardship, to the extent of being unable to feed themselves or their families or to pay the rent, they then claim hardship payments, they are told in all but a very few cases that they don’t qualify. So what should be done?
This is the ugly face of Tory Britain, as represented by those gallant ‘warriors for the dispossessed’ (in Michael Gove’s own words) Osborne and IDS. Labour should set out a fundamentally different framework. First, instead of the Tories’ contracting job opportunities for the marginally employable through semi-permanent austerity, Labour should expand the economy as a basis for generating job opportunities within sustainable growth.
Second, Atos should be replaced, not by another profit-maximising private corporation, but by public bodies specialising in assessment of job capability within the NHS.
Third, an independent body should be created to investigate all cases where someone had died or attempted suicide whilst on working-age benefit. Such cases would include that of the diabetic former soldier, David Clapson, who died penniless last July after being deprived of all his benefit income. There are dozens and dozens of these cases.
Fourth, instead of abrupt and unexplained deprivation of benefit, any persons who allegedly commit trivial or unintended infringements of official DWP rules should receive ‘pre-sanction written warnings’ (the yellow card approach).
Fifth, the availability of emergency hardship payments should be significantly widened where there was a clear need for them, and claimants should no longer be forced to wait 15 days for them, as at present.
Sixth, ministers should delay plans to sanction low-paid workers receiving universal credit until they could demonstrate that it would encourage claimants to obtain more hours or better pay – an outcome which at present is far from clear.
Seventh, since the Tories introduced tighter benefit conditions in October 2012, sanction rates have soared. Last year more than a million sanctions were handed down, and in some areas up to 10% of all job-seekers were sanctioned in 2013-4. This is utterly disproportionate, causing extreme hardship, destitution and ill-health, especially for those with mental illness or learning disabilities. Labour should make clear it will drop these draconian practices.