‘Harassing people on benefits degrades us all’, Joe Public Blog, The Guardian, 18 October 2011

October 18, 2011

From the Joe Public Blog at The Guardian, 18 October 2011.

Harassing people on benefits degrades us all

The repugnant moral rhetoric about benefit claimants echoes Victorian prejudices about the ‘undeserving poor', writes Peter Beresford

Arguments about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor characterised the poor law from its earliest days. They underpinned the popular fear and loathing of the workhouse that endure in folk memory. A key concern of the creators of the postwar welfare state was to put an end to such cruel moral distinctions. But now, and with a terrible irony, it looks as if the coalition government's welfare reforms may be undoing that action. For the first time, the government seems to be treating everyone on benefits as “undeserving” – unless and until they can convince a draconian assessment system otherwise.

Judgments about who can and cannot work, who should and shouldn't turn to the state for help, are always invidious to apply. For the Victorians, it was the very old, sick and disabled who passed muster. In the more affluent times of the 21st century, we might expect that someone coming to the end of their life would readily be added to their ranks. But current experience appears far from reassuring.

Irene (not her real name) is a middle-aged woman living on her own. She worked all her life, and had just been made redundant when she was diagnosed with cancer. She was claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and received Disability Living Allowance (DLA) under the special rules for someone who was medically assessed as terminally ill.

When Irene received a “limited capability for work” questionnaire from the Department for Work and Pensions, her social worker filled it in with her. This started a process that resulted in her being called for medical examination at a “face-to-face assessment”. This is the ATOS Healthcare process that claimants have learned to dread. Irene walks with difficulty. She was asked how she got to the interview and was left feeling that the very fact of getting there counted against her. She was asked to pick something up, which she did.

Irene was assessed as capable for work and received a letter telling her that her ESA was being stopped. Her social worker faxed a letter of appeal on grounds of her life-limiting illness, current medical condition, the side effects of medication and treatment for her physical impairment. Where such an appeal is initiated ESA is reinstated pending appeal, but minus the support component. For Irene this amounted to a loss of nearly 50% of her basic ESA payment, until, she was told by letter, her appeal would be heard in four months' time.

Irene's social worker then discovered that as someone judged to be terminally ill, she should never have been sent the questionnaire or called for interview and yet she had been deemed fit for work. The social worker was advised to fax the appeal tribunal. The next day Irene received a letter confirming the reinstatement of her ESA and backpay due.

This experience raises big and troubling questions. Clearly staff involved did not know how to operate the procedure correctly: unfortunately, a far from rare situation in the benefits system. Irene's positive outcome was entirely conditional upon having the expert advice and support of a trained advocate. Yet this is a time when the number of social workers working with adults is diminishing rapidly. We know that the likelihood of such appeals being successful is greatly increased where people have such representation.

Finally, and perhaps this is the biggest worry, this case cannot be dismissed as a one-off. Another example has subsequently come to attention of someone in similar circumstances who died shortly after receiving the “limited capability for work” questionnaire, thus proving their case in the most grimly conclusive way.

The fallout from political support for welfare reform is about much more than any individual case. Cross-party enthusiasm for harassing people on benefits has mushroomed in recent years. Only the Green party seems to have rejected this “anti-scrounger” consensus. Benefit claimants have been presented as pariahs in all major party politicking: they have been an easy target, from the last government's rhetoric about “getting a million people off incapacity benefits” to the coalition's fervour for shopping a “benefits cheat”. The Labour opposition indicates that it will still support key parts of the coalition's welfare reform plans, while pushing for some changes.

The real issue is not about a few “deserving” claimants being treated unjustly. It is about a culture of routinely harassing and bad-mouthing powerless people, which ultimately degrades us all.

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