Victimising claimants with disabilities

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On 28 June 2014, campaigners with disabilities organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) occupied Westminster Abbey in protest at the closure of the Independent Living Fund, which provides support for some 18,000 severely disabled people. This is not the only attack on state welfare for disabled people. In FRFI 236 we pointed out that the government’s drive to force 640,000 disabled people off Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and onto Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) would result in benefit sanctions for thousands of claimants. Now the government is considering the possibility of introducing sanctions for claimants who refuse mental health treatment – despite the fact that such services are next to non-existent.

Health-related sanctions are now commonplace and they do not just include those deemed ‘fit to work’ by Work Capability Assessments (WCA). Here in Newcastle, for instance, we have met:

  • A woman who was contemplating suicide, so went to her GP instead of her Jobcentre appointment – result, a sanction.
  • A man sanctioned because the Jobcentre would not accept a doctor’s letter saying that he should no longer work in the catering industry.
  • A man whose physiotherapy appointment clashed with his signing-on appointment, sanctioned.
  • A woman who was sanctioned twice, once for taking her young daughter to the doctor’s and then again for taking her to hospital.

Nationally, six out of ten ESA claimants hit with a sanction are vulnerable people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty, according to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The proportion has rocketed from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to 58% in 2013. The Court of Appeal has ruled that WCAs discriminate against people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism and has ordered the DWP to make changes in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Despite the ruling, DWP has sent a memo to staff saying it is ‘business as usual’, ignoring the court’s decision. Ravi Low-Beer, from the Public Law Project which took the case, said the DWP position was ‘completely wrong’, adding ‘They [the DWP] have challenged the finding that the process discriminates against people with mental health conditions and they lost. Where a court has made that finding, they cannot just do nothing.’

The court case was initiated by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), a campaign group formed under the last Labour government in 2010 by claimants of Incapacity Benefit (IB) concerned that the introduction of WCA would undermine their eligibility for ESA, the then new out-of-work disability benefit. An MHRN spokesperson said ‘We believe that it is vital that people do know about this victory. After all, outrageous lies about disabled benefit claimants have been shouted from the rooftops in much of the national press. Yet where have the front page headlines about this victory been? Nowhere! We now want to rectify this by making as much noise as possible about the truth: that the WCA does not fairly assess people with mental health problems and there has been terrible suffering as a result.’

The government’s introduction of a mandatory reconsideration stage by the DWP before a claimant can lodge an appeal with a benefit tribunal against an adverse WCA is yet another vindictive step. There is no provision of IB or ESA while the reconsideration is pending, and this can take months due to the disarray of the WCA system which is severely backlogged. Many claimants have to turn to food banks to survive.

In an article on the brutality of the DWP, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee reports (8 July 2014) a secret conversation with a Jobcentre manager: ‘the department denies there are targets, but she showed me a printed sheet of what are called “spinning plates”, red for missed, green for hit. They just missed their 50.5% target for “off flows”, getting people off ESA. They have been told to “disrupt and upset” them – in other words, bullying. That’s officially described, in Orwellian fashion, as “offering further support”. As ESA claimants approach the target deadline of 65 weeks on benefits – advisers are told to report them all to the fraud department for maximum pressure. In this manager’s area 16% are “sanctioned” or cut off benefits.’

On 12 July, the government announced that it was going to launch pilot schemes to determine the feasibility of mandating claimants on ESA with mental health problems to undergo treatment for anxiety and depression. 46% of ESA claimants have a mental health problem, and it is estimated that 260,000 could be hit by this ratcheting up of the attack on disabled people if it were implemented nationally. An anonymous government spokesperson said ‘We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT) work and they get people stable again but you can’t mandate people to take that treatment.’ Yet mental health services are almost completely broken: the government has just cut the standard payments for mental health care by more than it cut those for hospital treatments. Although CBT helps up to half of those affected by depression or anxiety, NHS England promises that only 15% of referred patients will get CBT by 2015 and wait times are sometimes over a year. The other half for whom CBT does not work, or those who are not ready for treatment may in the future join thousands of others in being bullied off ESA.

Cal Shaw

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014