Brutality combined with incompetence are becoming the hallmark of the current Tory administration and the plans to abolish Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are riddled with both. The Government is driving ahead with their plans to replace DLA with the new Personal Independent Payment (PIP). The aim of this is to strip benefits from a fifth of disabled people.
This will be achieved by using an independent medical assessment as the key part of the decision making process when considering a claim for the new benefit. That assessment will be carried out by a private company.
We already have an effective model of how the new scheme might operate. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is a short computer test carried out by French IT firm Atos which is used to determine eligibility for the out of work sickness and disability benefit Employment Support Allowance. For everyone other the Government and Atos themselves, it has been an unmitigated disaster. The constant assessment and re-assessment regime has driven an increasing number of people to take their own lives. A recent Daily Mirror investigation found that 32 people a week die after being declared ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Around 40% of appeals against Atos’ decisions are successful and the appeals system is in meltdown due to the number of cases being brought.
Despite some tampering around the edges due to a recent review of the process, there are no plans to abolish or significantly reform the WCA. This should serve as a stark warning to people facing the new PIP testing regime. The Government are happy with Atos the way things are. Lots of people are losing their benefits. That was always all they wanted.
The stated agenda of PIP is to remove benefits from 20% of disabled people. All other mealy mouthed attempts at reform are secondary to this. It will be down to the private sector to carry out this cull. In many ways the PIP process will be identical to the WCA. It may yet even be Atos who carry out the assessments.
This will not only prove traumatic for the people forced to undergo demeaning health tests, but will bring devastating social costs. The Government’s plan that “entitlement will depend on the person’s circumstances and the impact of their health condition or disability on their everyday lives” is vague and open to all kinds of interpretation.
How it will be measured in practice is anyone’s guess. Given it’s the private sector who will be carrying out the bulk of the work the answer is likely to be the cheapest way possible. It will be difficult to imagine how, for example, being in full time work can be ignored by any assessment. Under the WCA claimants who have admitted to watching Eastenders have had it used against them as evidence of being ‘fit to work’. It is therefore very likely that having a job will come to be seen as a disqualifying criteria for claiming PIP, if not formally but as a reality of people’s experiences. This may not be the Government’s intention, but in practice it seems unavoidable.
Atos, as well as human rights abusers G4s and private sector sharks Serco, are some of the companies believed to be bidding for the PIP contract. They should be warned it is a thoroughly poisoned chalice. Atos have already seen their reputation destroyed by the WCA, with the name of their company becoming a dirty word. This will seem trivial should they take on the PIP Assessments.
DLA is a non means tested benefit designed to help people meet the additional costs of disability or ill health. In many ways it should be seen as an adjunct to the NHS rather than a benefit comparable to those paid to people unable to work. DLA is used for things like additional transportation costs, specialist equipment or personal care. For many working disabled people these things are essential to help them remain in work. As Disability Rights UK have recently pointed out (PDF), the removal of DLA from over half a million people may drive many into unemployment.
People currently claiming DLA include doctors, lawyers, journalists and MPs. Whilst those claiming out of work benefits are by their very nature economically disempowered (in that they don’t have jobs and are forced into the poverty of the benefits system) many DLA claimants are highly skilled professionals. We could face the unedifying spectacle of Doctors having their health and disability needs assessed by the two bit NHS rejects at Atos. Disabled legal professionals may yet be forced into the appeals system and are likely to prove ferocious. Any company which takes on the PIP contract will face unprecedented resistance at grass roots level, from people in some cases far more qualified than their own assessors. It will be doctors, lawyers and journalists lining up alongside benefit claimants to take action against the companies concerned.
Imagine becoming public enemy number for not just the three million plus DLA claimants, but their friends, families and carers. People with many more skills and resources to fight than those on out of work benefits. Every mistake, appeal or careless remark by an assessor will be scrutinised. Assessment centres and other business sites could find themselves thronged with disabled protesters. An avalanche of legal challenges seems almost inevitable.
It is possible that on the ground a two tier process will develop. Disabled doctors and lawyers may be informally waved through the process in the hope they won’t make too much fuss. Can we honestly believe that David Blunkett or a Paralympian Gold Medal winner will face the same kind of scrutiny as an out of work disabled single mum living on a Council Estate?
The alternative is that the PIP assessment will become an unofficial ‘means test’. Those in work, or able to lead more active lives, may find themselves punished as any sign of independence is used against them. However the upcoming farce plays out it will prove catastrophic not just for disabled people themselves but for the wider credibility of the system.
As we have seen under the WCA regime, there will be more suicides, more appeals and more people having conditions made worse by the stress of endless testing. The Government says that only in very few cases will PIP be awarded for life. This will mean for example, that people who may have lost a limb will be forced back to continual re-assessments, presumably to check it hasn’t sneakily grown back.
Despite lurid headlines DLA is not an easy benefit to qualify for. A wealth of medical information is required, from GPs, consultants and other health professionals. As with the WCA, this is likely to become secondary to the short assessments carried out by private companies. As more disabled people are forced into poverty it will be down to Local Authorities and the NHS to pick up the slack. Just like so much of this Government’s Welfare Reform, it may yet cost more money to go down this road than simply leaving things as they are.
The Government are currently consulting on the changes and you can make your feelings heard here. If past consultations are anything to go by then don’t expect them to listen. The over privileged tory toffs have made their intentions well and truly clear. Don’t think that this scum will shed any tears for those driven into poverty or even suicide by these changes. As Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People has already said, the cost of disabled people is simply ‘unsustainable’. That tells us everything we need to know about this Government’s attitudes towards sickness and disability.