Perhaps the most extreme example of the Nasty Party tag as well as proof that the Cameron coalition’s contempt for anyone who didn’t vote Tory was no hissy fit slur on the part of IDS came via the punitive persecution of the sick and disabled on the bottom rung of society’s ladder throughout the six-year reign of the Old Etonians. In their attempt to balance the books and knock a few quid off the deficit in the wake of the 2008 crash, Dave and his team didn’t have the balls (nor, one suspects, the inclination) to stand up to either the banking industry or the tax-dodging corporations, so they played a classic Conservative game by honing in on those they knew couldn’t fight back. The Flashman bully in Cameron and Osborne showed its true colours during this, one of the most shameful sustained assaults of any modern British government.
Out-sourcing the task of reorganising the benefits system – particularly that corner of it occupied by the ill – was something already in place before the 2010 General Election. Gordon Brown had introduced the Work Capability Assessment in 2008, and hiring the controversial French firm Atos to tackle this was yet one more toxic legacy of the Blair era, another private-public initiative pursuing profit at the expense of the individual (or patient) that was destined to end in tears. Not that Gordon Brown gave a toss anymore than his successors. The propaganda machine had succeeded in painting every disability claimant as a scrounging shirker through its media mouthpieces, particularly in the press; stories exposing those claiming they were incapable of walking unaided as they then turned up for their local Sunday League football team had become such a regular element of tabloid reportage that the public were already convinced.
The sponsorship of the 2012 Paralympics by Atos was akin to Nick Griffin opening the Notting Hill Carnival; the boos that rang around the Olympic Stadium when none other than Gideon himself stepped up to present athletes with their medals was a landmark showcase for the protests against the Work Capability Assessment programme, though it continued regardless. Eventually, news began to circulate from former Atos employees of the pressures that the DWP had put them under, commanded to reduce the employment figures at any cost – including disregarding the conclusions of medically-trained fitness-for-work testers should their conclusions contradict the belief that everyone claiming disability benefits was more than capable of earning a living.
The unsentimental and common sense-free approach of Atos as directed by the DWP was blamed on the 2,380 deaths of disability benefits claimants within two months of their claims being rejected that occurred from 2011-14, many of them suicides. There was a great deal of buck-passing taking place when Atos was forced to carry the can for these cruel practices, with only the premature severance of the company’s contract with the British Government in 2015 releasing Atos from the pretence of being wholly responsible for the tragedies associated with their regime. The Atos website made it clear that they were following in time-honoured SS traditions by ‘only obeying orders’.
The resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in March sent Cameron’s administration into unprecedented back-tracking when they were already staring oblivion in the face courtesy of the upcoming EU Referendum. George Osborne had announced a fresh assault on the disabled in his spring budget, measures that even IDS – a man who had given every impression of being the apostle of such measures – found too much.
Quitting the Cabinet within days of Gideon’s announcement forced the swift cancellation (or denial) of these plans, with the likes of the now-unemployed Nicky Morgan declaring the Chancellor’s proposals were ‘just a suggestion’. Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation could be cynically translated as the actions of a man bound to bear the brunt of opposition to such measures absolving himself of the responsibility; but the dropping of the proposals as soon as IDS quit seemed indicative of a sea-change in the approach that had characterised Tory policy towards the sick and disabled from day one of the coalition.
Now, of course, we have a new leader at the helm; and is it mere coincidence that a conscious rejection of the previous policy has been announced on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham? This weekend, Theresa May’s Secretary for Work and Pensions Damian Green declared that those afflicted with life-threatening illnesses will no longer be subjected to six-monthly assessments re their capability for work. Even IDS has given the announcement the thumbs-up. This is undoubtedly welcome news and another sign that David Cameron’s successor is cut from a different cloth; but there has been no mention yet of that invisible affliction, mental health.
Nevertheless, there is small cause for celebration at the news that one of the most reprehensible policies enacted by a British Government in recent years has at least been belatedly recognised as the appallingly cruel injustice it always was by those who instigated it in the first place; we can only hope this is the start of a long-overdue phase of realisation that will eventually extend to all those deserving cases who fall under the shadow of a system that has punished them for circumstances beyond their control for far too long.
© The Editor