On the Sick.
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members".
Two recent TV programmes, Chanel 4's "Dispatches - Britain on the Sick", and BBC2's "Panorama - Disabled or Faking It?", revealed just how difficult it is to pass the assessment in order to get disability benefits in this country. As part of a programme to try to get people off incapacity benefit and back into employment, the coalition has contracted the French multinational company, Atos, to carry out such assessments, a contract worth £100 million a year. But, the programmes revealed that people with serious disabilities are being assessed as fit for work.
In the "Dispatches" programme, an undercover doctor went to Atos Healthcare's 16-week training programme to see how those who carry out the assessments are trained.What emerged was truly disturbing. The doctor in charge at one point advised the trainees that even if a person had only one finger, they would get a score of 0 for manual dexterity. Scores range from 0 for no impairment, to 15 for maximum disability. A claimant usually has to score a maximum 15 points in one of seventeen types of activity in order to go on receiving their benefits. But with this type of stringency, is it any wonder that many who are genuinely disabled and unable to work have fallen foul of this test?
Indeed, 2 out of every 5 assessments are appealed, with around a third of those appeals being upheld, a process costing £45 million a year. And, despite claims from the DWP and Atos that there are no targets for the number of people assessed as fit to work, the doctor training those to carry out assessments said that if their figures got above rates of 12% or 13% for those getting the top rate of support, pressure would be brought to bear on them to reduce the numbers being passed as eligible to go on receiving their benefit.
The situation for those with experience of mental ill health seemed little better, the "Panorama" programme revealing that one man, who had experience of bipolar disorder, had actually been assessed as fit for work while under a section in hospital. Another, it was said, who had made several suicide attempts, was asked by one assessor, "well, why aren't you dead?" Atos claim that their assessors are trained to ensure that people are "treated professionally and sympathetically", but such monstrous insensitivity would appear to show otherwise.
As if to add insult to injury, the media continue to portray those claiming benefits as social pariahs. In our local paper, "The Sentinel", they seem to have launched some sort of campaign to expose benefits cheats. And, while the paper is not printing untruths, such things tend to give the impression that fraud and malingering are the norm, rather than the exception. The paper have portrayed this as some sort of act of crusading journalism, when in actual fact, to my mind at least, it just serves to reinforce government myth-making and propaganda.
After writing only last time about Britain's success in the Olympic Games, it has since been revealed to me that Atos are actually going to be one of the sponsors of the upcoming Paralympics. As my friend from the Pathways Group said in one of his recent blogs, such blatant, shameless hypocrisy would appear to be beyond even the realms of Swiftian satire.
So, being "on the sick", as it used to be called, is no joke. As if being ill or disabled weren't bad enough, now people are having to cope with the pressure of being reassessed for their benefits under this extremely harsh regime, while the media portray them, often, as fraudsters, which, according to one charity, has led disabled people to report an increase in intolerance towards their conditions. One sincerely hopes, then, that those lucky enough not to be ill will realise just how difficult things have become, and that the measure of the civility of any society is in how it treats its weaker members.