New Year, New Grandiose Statements. David Cameron’s been making loud announcements over the past seven days; this week he’s been banging on about immigrants and the need to speak the lingo as crucial in embracing the culture. The British Citizenship Test is crammed with the kind of historical references to this country that half of the natives wouldn’t be able to answer on account of great chunks of British history – especially that nasty imperialist empire-building stuff – being excised from the curriculum for fear of offending ethnic minorities, despite the unavoidable fact that most owe their presence here to the existence of the old colonies. Perhaps any aspiring Brits who fail rather than pass the test should be awarded citizenship in that this is a more of a mark of their native credentials.
Last week, the PM expressed his desire to eradicate estates from the landscape – not the green and pleasant ones he and his horsey chums ride across when hunting foxes, of course, but the so-called sink estates that the plebs live on. He probably learned about them from watching ‘Benefits Street’. He complemented this newfound concern for those whose desire to escape the miserable poverty of such estates has been scuppered by his administration’s ruthless cuts by making a pledge to invest £1 billion in various forms of mental health care; it attracted the kind of headlines a Prime Minister usually attracts when announcing a new policy in which a lot of money will be splashed about, but his sudden public declaration of concern on the issue of mental health seems very much at odds with the policy his government has pursued over the past five years, especially with those mental health sufferers whose conditions render them unable to hold down a regular job and are faced with little choice but to claim benefits.
The Work Capability Assessment was introduced by Gordon Brown’s Government in 2008, and a Tory-friendly policy that demonised and degraded disability benefits claimants was eagerly taken on by the incoming Coalition in 2010 as a canny way of tackling the deficit. Media horror stories that portrayed any benefits claimant as scrounging scum helped create a climate in which sympathy and genuine assistance were bound to be in short supply, thus giving government the green light to ride roughshod over disability and mental health campaigners. The controversial outsourcing of testing benefits claimants’ capability for work to the French company Atos ended in August last year, but for all the negative publicity Atos received in the media following a series of baffling decisions to pass severely ill claimants as fit for work, the fact is they were under immense pressure from the Government, particularly DWP Tsar Iain Duncan Smith.
Stories emerged a couple of years back from ex-Atos employees that the essential nature of the task entrusted to them was to bring down the unemployment figures and to alter the unhelpful conclusions of fitness testers should they find a claimant genuinely unfit for work. Statistics later revealed that from 2011-2014, 2,380 claimants died – several by their own hands – less than two months after their claims came to an end courtesy of Atos.
With their offices picketed and their employees receiving death threats, Atos have attempted to distance themselves from the damage done in their name since their contract was prematurely terminated, and their website states that contract was rewritten by the Government to conveniently hand over responsibility for the disability benefit aspect of so-called welfare reforms. Granted, there may well be an element of passing the buck, but the DWP called the overall shots, and it seems pretty evident now that Atos were merely obeying orders. After all, the dodgy US insurance company Unum has been issuing advice regarding disability claimants to successive British Governments since the 90s, and played a key part in designing the testing system that the DWP then implemented and hired Atos to carry the can for.
Awarding the contract to Atos in the first place was hardly a move that spoke of concern about mental or physical disability on the Government’s part; the lack of medical or psychiatric qualifications Atos employees possessed, not to mention zero empathy with the claimants’ condition, said it all. Would one hire a lifetime teetotaller to run an AA group or someone whose drug experience stretches no further than swallowing the odd Anadin to work as a counsellor in a rehab clinic?
It was evident early on that the vulnerable on the bottom rung of society’s ladder were once again in line to bear the brunt of an economic situation they hadn’t caused and their lives were being placed in the hands of a company that didn’t even pay Corporation Tax. Following the suicide of one claimant Atos had decided was fit for work, the coroner overseeing the case surmised that Atos had come to this decision without taking any of the doctors’ reports into consideration throughout the 90-minute assessment. Who is most qualified to judge whether someone’s mental or physical condition prevents them from stacking supermarket shelves or cold-calling members of the public?
The former Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office, Jonathan Portes, said the assessment programme Atos carried out for the DWP was ‘the biggest single social policy failure of the last fifteen years’; with a record number of appeals lodged with tribunals, increased antidepressant dependency amongst those who have been subjected to the assessment, and a string of suicides, the programme is an appalling example of a government whose alleged concern for mental health sufferers is clearly secondary to boasting of falling unemployment figures. For David Cameron to then don the mantle of a man who cares does tend to stick in the throat a little – not that an alien body lodged in the windpipe would prevent anyone being passed as fit for work, though.
© The Editor