Austerity regime kills

by Daphne Liddle

THE DEPARTMENT of Work and Pensions last week, after years of prevarication, published the figures on the numbers of disability benefit claimants who have died shortly after having been found “fit for work” by a Government Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

Activists had been calling on DWP to publish updated statistics since November 2012, in an effort to prove that the WCA, the eligibility test for employment and support allowance (ESA), was so damaging that it was causing deaths. The information commissioner finally ordered DWP to release the figures after an appeal by Mike Sivier, a freelance journalist and carer who runs the Vox Political blog.

The figures show that that, of the two million people who had gone through a work capability assessment and had received an ESA decision between 1st May 2010 and 28th Feb 2013, nearly 41,000 had died within a year of that decision.

The reports also show that between December 2011 and February 2014, 81,140 people died while claiming ESA or incapacity benefit (IB). And 2,650 ESA and Invalidity Benefit claimants died soon after being found “fit for work” as a result of an assessment.

Another 7,200 died after being placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG), for claimants the Government had decided were well enough to move back towards work.

These figures have sparked many calls for Ian Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to resign and a United Nations inquiry into human rights abuses of people with disabilities in Britain.

The Government has claimed the figures do not prove that having to go through the WCA and being found fit for work actually caused or hastened the deaths of these people. But they do prove the result of the assessment was terribly wrong and at the very least put the victims through a bureaucratic nightmare of stress in their last days. And for many who had their benefits cut it also left them penniless when they most needed help.

Many activists warned that the figures “do not tell the whole story”, and would require detailed analysis before any conclusions could be reached. They say the published figures ignore those disabled people found fit for work but unable to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because of its strict conditionality.

DPAC (Disabled People Against the Cuts) said the figures also ignore the thousands of disabled people sanctioned every month; those disabled people “portrayed as scroungers by the media” — and the “suffering and the humiliation of disabled people who have to prove their impairment/ long-term health issues over and over again to DWP staff who don’t believe them.”

The disabled social affairs journalist Frances Ryan wrote in the Guardian that death had become part of Britain’s benefits system. She said: “That is not hyperbole but the reality that the stress caused by austerity has led us to.

“Shredding the safety net — a mix of sanctions, defective ‘fit for work’ tests, and outright cuts to multiple services has meant that benefit claimants are dying; through suicide, starvation and even being crushed by a refuse lorry when a 17-week benefit sanction forced a man to scavenge in a bin for food.”

Philip Connolly, policy and development manager of Disability Rights UK, said: “It is not just the charities but the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing who have deplored this medical test for fitness for work.

“Now the evidence of the cruelty and stress involved in this test can be seen by everyone else too and not simply by the families of the dead. We need a completely new approach.”

Three days before the figures were published Duncan Smith announced that the WCA was not working as it should and that it should be replaced. But there are fears that its replacement could prove even more damaging to disabled people.”

Disabled campaigner and researcher Catherine Hale, who wrote a review on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said: “I’ll eat my hat if this Government, after all its policies and rhetoric of blame and punishment towards disabled people, actually intends to perform a U-turn and empower us instead.”

The truth is that the massive cuts to the DWP budget mean that casualties are inevitable. The alternative would be to raise taxes on the rich and make the giant multinational companies pay the share of corporate taxes and this Government has made its decision in favour of the rich even though they know it will kill many disabled people and make life and endless misery for others.