There’s always something ominous about the brown envelope. For many, it is the least appetising item to pop through the letterbox that isn’t a flyer for inedible pizzas; let’s just say it’s not exactly a colour-coded prelude to tidings of joy. Traditionally, the brown envelope prepared the recipient for a reminder that the payment of a utility bill was overdue, though deregulation has seen that tradition dwindle somewhat as each energy provider competes to establish its own distinctive identity; dropping the grim beige of the packaging is a deceptive trick of the trade, fooling the customer into believing the news won’t be so bad after all.

For those in receipt of benefits, however, the brown envelope retains its role as a harbinger of doom – a paper soothsayer whose imagined contents radiate fear to the point where opening said correspondence can be prolonged so the suspense becomes a sickening inversion of the excitement surrounding the announcement of an Oscar winner. Anyone who has had extended dealings with the DWP (or, for that matter, its predecessor, the DHSS) will be all-too aware that missives from the organisation are not necessarily in competition with a Valentine’s card from a loved one. More often than not, the letters dispatched from the DWP are dispatched to inform the recipient that the fragile safety net they’d relied upon to prevent them falling into a bottomless pit has been removed.

I recently explained to a friend in Canada how the responsibility of British society’s most vulnerable individuals is in the hands of a private company. She had naturally assumed such a delicate and important function of the state would not have been outsourced; and so she should. Take a step back for a moment and contemplate the madness of giving the power to decide the future of the sick, the poor and the desperate to a corporate entity whose duty is to its shareholders – a corporate entity that can guarantee the renewal of its profitable contract if it assesses claimants are faking it, thus bringing down the numbers for the triumphant government statisticians come election time. We should be ashamed that we’ve let this happen.

The body of 57 year-old Errol Graham was discovered in June 2018 by bailiffs; they broke down the door of his Nottingham council flat to evict him and found the emaciated mortal remains of a man weighing four and-a-half stone. He died of starvation in the world’s fifth richest nation. Maybe we’d have expected this kind of outcome for a man with a history of mental troubles and living on the breadline in Victorian Britain; but 21st century Britain? The inquest into his death found Errol Graham had been a long-term sufferer of chronic depression and had been briefly sectioned in 2015. Upon returning to his home, he apparently ignored approaches from mental health teams and his GP; his ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and Housing Benefit were eventually stopped within a couple of months of each other in 2017, after which lived for more than six months without any financial support.

One could surmise Errol Graham spurned help when he should have actively accepted it; but putting yourself in his shoes can require a considerable leap of the imagination if his world is a world utterly alien to you. The competent, resourceful and practical person you may well be is not the person Errol Graham was, so don’t expect him to react to situations in the same way. According to information released following the inquest into his death, he was last seen in an official capacity by a visitor from Nottingham’s City Homes housing association four months before the discovery of his body. A policewoman who attended the scene reported the only food at the property were two tins of fish that were five years out of a date; the flat was without gas and electricity. Errol Graham simply withered away.

But see him not as just another unfortunate casualty of the system; that’s how the likes of the DWP will see him; instead, see him as a person. Errol Graham was 57 when he died, placing his year of birth as 1961. Picture him as a little boy, perhaps one of the children who set aside pocket-money so that the first seven-inch single they splashed out on could be ‘Israelites’ by Desmond Dekker; picture him as a teenager, inspired to kick a ball about by the first generation of British-born black footballers; picture him as a young man, invigorated by the 2-Tone movement offering hope as the economic prospects of his part of the country entered the irreversible industrial meltdown of the Thatcher era.

Then picture him plunged into confusion by the first signs of depression, reluctantly seeking medical assistance from a GP who may or may not have been sympathetic and might possibly have idly placed him on a course of medication – pills he’d have to squirrel away from his nearest and dearest for fear his condition could be revealed; picture him being referred to a psychoanalyst and undergoing clandestine therapy sessions he is too embarrassed to share with anyone; picture his shame at finding himself in such a position at a time long before mental health became a virtue-signalling T-shirt designed to fit every celebrity, a time when the sinister spectre of the old asylums continued to cast a lingering shadow over plans for ‘care in the community’, a time when male failure to cope equated with weakness.

And Errol Graham’s journey through the minefield of the benefits system will have lifted him out of the straightforward signing-on ritual that would have been familiar to those he had been at school with to the more uncertain and unpredictable end of the maze – the place where doctors and medical personnel become involved and the need to openly demonstrate one’s mental difficulties rather than hide them is a factor in whether or not one is eligible to receive assistance from the state. Errol Graham will have spent the majority of his days attempting to come across as ‘normal’, to obscure the least acceptable side of his nature from everyone comprising his daily social discourse; and then he will have been confronted by a suspicious stranger demanding he whip away the facade of normality that required an immense amount of effort to construct in public and suddenly expose his demons as though to do so was simple. It is like enduring a mental strip search. It is a horribly dehumanising and draining exercise.

This requirement to abruptly drop the persona society demands of its citizens, only to then resume it the moment one leaves ‘the assessment centre’, is no easy ask for anyone in the position Errol Graham found himself in. It is like Mike Yarwood spending his entire life in public impersonating Harold Wilson and then being forced to do a ‘and this is me’ routine before someone he has never met before, someone who is under tremendous pressure to find the ‘me’ impersonation less convincing than his Harold Wilson. But there are no instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down; there is week after excruciating week awaiting the decision of Pontius Pilate, expecting the worst to come through the post every morning. These people have the kind of life-or-death power that those who have never been at the receiving end have no real comprehension of; and if the news is bad, it can feel like the whole world is falling in on you. And if you already feel there is no hope, such news confirms it.

As Sophie Corlett from Mind commented in relation to the sad case of Errol Graham, ‘This gentleman and many people have lifelong conditions that are unlikely to change and yet they are recalled again and again for face-to-face assessments which people find very challenging.’ If the death of Errol Graham had been an isolated incident, it would still be bad; but we all know it wasn’t. Britain, this just isn’t good enough.

© The Editor


Two reports published within 24 hours of one another have yet again highlighted that, for all the heightened public awareness of mental illness in recent years, it remains socially stigmatising and seriously underfunded. The first report, ‘Thriving at Work’, commissioned by Our Glorious Leader no less, was a review of the way in which the workplace responds to those members of the workforce afflicted by various mental health symptoms. One sufferer of chronic depression, interviewed by the BBC in the wake of the report’s publication, was advised to look elsewhere for employment by her boss when she admitted her condition and was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable once it became common knowledge in the office; she left the job not long after, as do around 300,000 a year for similar reasons, costing employers upwards of £42bn.

The findings of the experts who compiled the report on behalf of the PM confirmed beliefs that mental illness has yet to fully shed its taboo status. At a time when the cry for an end to all discrimination based on race, religion and sexuality is at its loudest, it’s ironic that those whose needs are deemed most worthy of attention are those whose otherness is blatantly obvious in either the colour of their skin or the clothes they’re wearing – whether a lady in a burqa or a feller in a dress. Their ‘diversity’ is a virtual sandwich board of personal advertising, something that makes it easier for the majority to discern the difficulties of the minority.

By contrast, mental health symptoms being invisible to the naked eye always present its sufferers with a problem as to how it relates to those around them, unlike any physical illness. If the symptoms aren’t visible, it’s as though others are unconvinced there’s any sort of problem because they can’t see it like they can an arm in a sling or a leg in a cast, like they need to have it simplified in the most basic manner as proof the sufferer isn’t acting up. Mental illness is more challenging to the non-sufferer and can often spawn a sceptical attitude towards the condition as a consequence, almost forcing the sufferer to convince the doubters as if they were faking insanity to get out of the army. I’ve been confronted by it myself. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you; you’ve got two arms and two legs – what’s the problem? Depression is just another word for laziness.’

This attitude is in place from an early age. The second report into mental health to have appeared this week concentrated on the youth experience and how poorly served young sufferers are by the system. This review discovered almost 40% of services exclusive to children and adolescents in England were in desperate need of improvement. ‘The World at One’ covered the report by making a Freedom of Information request on the subject and discovered some children were having to wait up to 22 months before seeing a specialist mental health professional. I must admit these revelations didn’t strike me as particularly revelatory, however; anyone who has followed my regular posts on the severely mentally-handicapped child I’ve christened X probably won’t be surprised to learn X herself has endured gaps of a similar nature between such appointments.

The report was compiled by the Care Quality Commission, whereas earlier this year, NHS England published its own suggestions for improvement; ‘Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’. Claire Murdoch, head of mental health for NHS England claimed there has been an increase of 15% of spending on mental health services for the young over the past twelve months. ‘Without a doubt, after years of drought,’ she says, ‘the NHS’ mental health funding taps have now been turned on.’ As ever with the NHS, though, one wonders where the money goes; or, to maintain Ms Murdoch’s watery analogy, which plughole it’s destined to disappear down.

‘The World at One’ spoke to 22-year-old Alice Gibbs, who was diagnosed with anorexia at 12 and, after a six-month wait to see a specialist, received four years of treatment in her home city of Leicester, despite its limitations. There was an eating disorder unit in London she now reckons had the facilities to accelerate her recovery, but as a physically and mentally fragile 16-year-old, being away from the support of her family probably wouldn’t have helped either. Had somewhere of that unit’s calibre been closer to home, she surmises she wouldn’t have lost a decade to such a debilitating condition. Her experience seems to back up the ‘postcode lottery’ theory when it comes to healthcare.

Alice Gibbs is still receiving treatment, saying she has ‘managed’ her condition rather than cured it, something that anyone who has experienced mental illness will recognise; it’s always a case of management rather than cure, because there isn’t a cure. Alice Gibbs’ treatment could well be an obstacle to any career ambitions she harbours, though ‘Thriving at Work’ makes 40 recommendations to encourage employers to help their employees with mental health issues stay in their jobs. But it would seem it depends on who you work for. The insurer Aviva received special praise in the report, yet they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, both of this week’s reports into mental illness don’t paint a very rosy picture of this country’s care for and treatment of those unfortunate enough to fall under its devastating shadow.

And whilst it makes a refreshing change to commend Theresa May for something – ‘It is only by making this an everyday concern for everyone,’ said the PM, ‘that we can change the way we see mental illness’ – we cannot neglect the callous disregard for sufferers of mental illness that her Government and its predecessor has presided over via its continuous use of Atos to decide whether or not someone is ‘faking it’ for benefits. The toxic legacy of the IDS era is still with us in the shape of Universal Credit, after all; and Mrs May won’t budge on that one. Giving with one hand and taking away with the other yet again.

© The Editor


£40 million – it’s one of those unimaginable amounts that humble folk such as me and thee regularly hear being bandied about by the powers-that-be, yet its sheer immenseness in comparison to what most of us handle on a daily basis renders it almost meaningless as a number. When Lottery winners scoop £12 million, I often wonder if it’d make that much of a difference to the sudden transformation of their lives if they’d simply won half of that; to people who normally survive on a few grand a year, I would think £6 million would probably suffice, wouldn’t it? Of course, in the hands of government, £40 million is merely loose change. But it still sounds a lot to those members of the electorate bereft of non-dom status. It also serves as political proof ‘something is being done’.

Q: What are you doing about the NHS, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in the NHS and…
Q: What are you doing about the railways, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in the rail network and…
Q: What are you doing about the housing crisis, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in affordable housing and…

You get the picture; we’ve all heard the same words emanate from the ministerial mouth time and time again; and while £40 million is a modest amount when compared to some of the dough divided up and dispensed by the Treasury, it’s still a hell of a lot of money. And that’s roughly the amount of taxpayer cash our lords and masters in the Conservative Government have squandered in their desperate and mean-spirited attempts to prevent the sick and disabled from receiving benefits. FOI requests published by the Independent (yes, it still exists out there in cyberspace, apparently) reveal the extremes to which the DWP will go to reduce the number of disability benefit claimants that Iain Duncan Smith claimed it would during his reign of terror.

Let us not forget the promises made when Theresa May seized power and installed Damian Green in the old IDS hot-seat; the punitive austerity-driven nastiness of the previous administration’s attitude towards those incapable of regular employment was to be phased out in favour of a more humane approach. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t support this ambitious hyperbole. Last year, £22m was devoted to processing appeals lodged by claimants against sanctions – and officials handling appeals are advised to turn down four out of five – whilst those claimants making it all the way to court were fought by a government that spent £17m doing so. Happily, the bastards lost 62% of the cases in 2016, but that still adds up to a large chunk of the public purse spent doing what – saving face?

The 62% of appeal cases lost by government lawyers – government and lawyers; what a marriage made in Hell that is – related to the ESA (Employment Support Allowance). The success rate for the Westminster mafia when it comes to the PIP (Personal Independent Payment), which is for the long-term ill, isn’t much better from their perspective; they lost 65% of those in the second half of 2016, though for all Mrs May’s empty promises of a fresh approach, nothing has changed. Between January and March last year (under Dave), the Government spent £1,166,459 trying to deny ESA claimants money; in the same period this year (under Theresa), that amount has risen 77% to £2,069,849.

The loathsome and rightly infamous assessors going by the name of Atos and Capita have so far been paid £578m to make lives that are already pretty miserable even worse ever since the PIP was introduced in 2013; despite condemnation of these assessments by those at the receiving end of them and an appalling record of mind-boggling insensitivity (not to mention the high number of deaths amongst many affected), their contracts have now apparently been extended to 2019. Ever since private firms were brought in to shave a few million off the figures for those claiming disability benefits (by Gordon Brown), the specific medical expertise necessary to assess a claimant’s ability to earn a living has been deemed unimportant, resulting in the likes of physiotherapists judging on mental health sufferers. This largely appears to be the root cause of the endless inaccurate findings and the consequent appeals.

Ken Butler of Disability Rights UK spoke of how the mistakes made during the initial assessments were as responsible for this appalling state of affairs as the Government’s determination to take on claimants, regardless of the cost to the public purse. ‘If the assessments were better, then you wouldn’t have need for mandatory considerations,’ he said. ‘The system now only functions really to put people off going any further; the whole process is quite lengthy and stressful.’

Anyone reliant upon disability benefits already feels marginalised as a second-class citizen; to then be told by someone not always in possession of the correct medical qualifications that they’re not even disabled enough to receive financial assistance is an additional source of anxiety. Having to go through the complicated process of challenging, and then appealing against, the decision is an exhausting and wearisome drain on the claimant that can drag on for months before it reaches a tribunal; and throughout this period, the outcome remains uncertain. The ever-present possibility and constant worry that it could end badly hardly improves the health and wellbeing of an ill individual.

The Citizens Advice Bureau were last year called on to help out in almost 40,000 PIP appeals, 37% more than the year before; and, lest we forget, the people they’ve come to the assistance of are usually representative of some of society’s most vulnerable. These are the people the Government is intent on mercilessly browbeating – those who are in the worst possible position to fight back. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it.

© The Editor


davrosPerhaps 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


UntitledWho’d have thought it? Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, arch-advocate of cutting benefits to the bone for the best part of a decade, has resigned on the pretext that the cuts to disability benefits proposed by the Chancellor in the Budget went too far. Yes, you heard right. I know it sounds about as plausible as Nick Griffin regarding Oswald Mosley as someone who was a bit extreme, but that’s what ‘the quiet man’ said in his resignation letter as he walked out of the Cabinet.

George Osborne had again exhibited his charmless talent for embodying the Nasty Party mantle that continues to plague the Conservatives when unveiling this week’s Budget. This time – surprise, surprise – the recipients of his purse-string-pruning belonged to one of the few sections of society that he and his spivvy cronies can’t make a profit from: the sick and the disabled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose memories of a ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ sketch spoofing Chancellor Geoffrey Howe were evoked, the one where he announces taxes on wheelchairs, white sticks and guide-dogs, adding ‘I am deliberately targeting those who can’t fight back’. So far, so predictable – but wait! There are actually some Tories sitting in the House who didn’t endorse his proposed disability benefit cuts, some who don’t fit the born-to-rule profile, some who are decent constituency MPs concerned that the wrong people are being punished again, some who are even threatening to stage a backbench rebellion if Gideon attempts to force the measure through Parliament.

The backtracking has already begun, barely 48 hours after Osborne proclaimed the policy with his customary brand of misanthropic smugness; Education Minister Nicky Morgan – wearer of a curious expression that implies she’s being permanently goosed – has hastily stepped in to declare that Osborne’s Personal Independence Payment cuts were ‘just a suggestion’. Of course, Gideon has been here before – just last year, as a matter of fact. Remember his attempts to slash £4 billion from Working Tax Credits? That’s the one that was famously thrown out by the Lords and resulted in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement being dominated by the humiliating abandonment of the idea. And if that concept was regarded as an attack on David Cameron’s favourite standby of ‘hard-working families’, how will this latest example of Osborne’s arrogance and conceit blinding him to his own miscalculations be welcomed?

One would expect the Opposition to oppose Osborne’s idea; it’s their job to do so, after all. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the Chancellor and his party of waging war on the disabled, but I doubt anybody would have anticipated less. However, the fury of disability campaigners – 25 charities have wasted little time in composing a joint letter asking the Government to think again – seems to be complemented by an unexpectedly sympathetic response to their concerns from within the Conservative Party itself.

Iain Duncan Smith, in his role as the man with whom the buck stops when it comes to benefit cuts, has responded to Osborne’s plans by suddenly agreeing with anyone in possession of a heart. ‘I have for some time,’ he writes, ‘and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled, and the context in which they’ve been made, are a compromise too far.’ For a man who has already overseen more than £30 billion cuts to the welfare budget to exit government on such a pretext sounds a bit rich, yet Duncan Smith goes on to cite the unfairness of a Budget that benefits higher-earners and penalises those at the bottom. He knows he would have been in the firing line had these cuts been implemented and he also knows his position as a long-term Euro-Sceptic, in direct opposition to Osborne, would have rendered his post even more intolerable at such a politically perilous moment for Britain’s EU membership. Iain Duncan Smith has ironically quit on a day when Cameron and Osborne have quickly distanced themselves from these controversial proposals, but the fact that the quiet man hasn’t gone quietly is further evidence of Tory tensions as the EU Referendum edges closer.

For all IDS’s apparent U-turn on benefit cuts, one cannot but see this resignation in the context of the Brexit issue. It colours everything in Tory circles right now. One could even be cynical – perish the thought! – and suggest the backbenchers who oppose Osborne’s plans might just be doing so because Gideon represents the anti-Brexit faction and they’re making the most of every opportunity to give him a bloody nose.

George Osborne has gleefully promoted himself as the main man in the Remain camp along with scaremongering Dave, yet he increasingly seems to be going further out on a limb in a party that can call on some of its most prominent heavyweights to sell the opposing message. Another Budget cock-up is the last thing Gideon needed; that it has resulted in the voluntary exit of a man he hoped would deflect the vitriol of disability campaigners away from him is an additional blow that doesn’t bode well for his Prime Ministerial ambitions. If that’s the case, I suspect there won’t be a moist eye in the House.

© The Editor


CameronNew 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