I listened to Michael Meacher’s debate in the House of Commons yesterday on the government’s Work Capability Assessment (WCA) programme. On the whole, it was very heartening, as MPs of all parties made contributions passionately advocating proper treatment of disabled people and vilifying the current system as conducted by Atos. A Tory MP even did himself credit by making his impassioned argument without using it as an excuse to take cheap swipes at the last Labour government.
Unfortunately, Tory Minister of State for Work and Pensions Mark Hoban failed to take the opportunity to show the same level of compassion and sense. The very opposite, in fact. So opposite that I didn’t believe my ears at first, and had to wind back to hear it again.
Just before Meacher’s round-up of the debate and the closing motion, Mr Hoban stood up to give his final comments. Over the space of several minutes, he proceeded to perform what amounted to a whitewash, acknowledging that the system could be improved but denying the problems with assessing fluctuating conditions, with assessment of people with mental health issues, the problem of incorrect assessment as fit for work that results in around 40% of such assessments being overturned by appeal judges, and the problem of inadequate training of assessors. He called the shortcomings of the system and of Atos’ assessment process ‘myths’ and even claimed that, in a system that has 40% of its decisions overturned on appeal, the complaints rate was only 2.6%. Presumably all those people appealing their decisions are actually perfectly happy with the process!
These statements flew in the face of statements by MPs even of his own party, as well as masses of evidence provided by charities and campaigners, and were mind-boggling in their own right. But they were positively sane by comparison with what came next:
demonising the work capability assessment does not help our constituents and does not address their concerns.
This government has set new benchmarks in terms of the shamelessness of its distortions, exaggerations and outright lies, both to Parliament and to the electorate. But even now, almost 24 hours later, I’m still struggling to believe Mr Hoban actually said what you just read. But he did.
This government is relentless in demonising anyone it wishes to attack and rob. From public sector workers, to doctors, to all benefit claimants – and especially the unemployed and disabled – this Tory-led government has shown neither conscience about, nor any concern for the consequences of, its tactic of casting vulnerable people as ‘scroungers’ and hard-working people defending their pay and jobs as selfish and unrealistic.
The WCA programme has caused massive distress for tens of thousands of disabled people, and continues to do so – and is even believed to be the cause of a rising death toll. It has been described, by a non-disabled journalist, as a campaign of terror against disabled people.
Many disabled people – as MPs also testified to the House – find themselves trapped in a cycle where they are assessed as fit for work, refused benefit, appeal, spend months in the appeal process, win their appeal, and then find they’re immediately due for another assessment. The human toll of this woeful programme is huge.
This government feels no qualms about doing all this, or about ignoring the consequences and cost in terms of human fear and suffering. But criticise its process and policy – even if MPs on all sides agree – and it will react forcefully. It will accuse you of ‘demonising’ its programme, and ‘demonising’ poor old Atos, that downtrodden company that only saw a 57% increase in its profits (€182 million) in its latest full financial year.
Could there be a clearer example of this government’s twisted priorities, distorted worldview and absolute venality?
You’d think not, but the sad fact is that there’s little doubt that it’s only a matter of time until we see even worse.