“Politics as currently practised,” says the French journalist Christian Salmon, “is no longer the art of the possible, but the art of the fictive. Its aim is not to change the world as it exists, but to affect the way it is perceived.”
In British politics, nowhere is this gap between perception and reality more yawning than in the government’s treatment of sick and disabled people. The iniquities of the British state’s work capability assessment (WCA), which disabled people have to pass in order to continue to receive financial support have been well recorded. 38% of decisions are reversed on appeal and 14% of general practitioners (family doctors) say they have patients who have self-harmed as a result of fear of the assessment or actually going through it. Six per cent of GPs say they have patients who have attempted or committed suicide.
The tests have caused “misery and hardship” to thousands of benefit claimants says the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The WCA is “arbitrary and cruel” says Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University.
What is less noted, though, is the role of the “art of the fictive”. The fictional character of the government’s claims about what the tests involve and are intended to do. When challenged after revelations of the deaths and suffering the tests help to bring about, the government resorts to systematic deception. The deception has two main forms.
1 If only you’d told us how ill you were
When, in September 2012, after a man who suffered from epilepsy was stripped of his disability benefits following a decision he was “fit for work”, and subsequently died, the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), said it suspected a regrettable error in the flow of information.
“We encourage people to provide as much medical evidence as possible when they apply for Employment Support Allowance,” said a spokeswoman, “and often people who are found fit for work only provide the necessary evidence when they ask for a reconsideration or an appeal.”
Two months later, when it was revealed that a half-blind, paralysed stroke victim who couldn’t speak had died following a decision he was fit for work, the official line was identical.
“We encourage people to provide as much medical evidence as possible,” bleated the DWP “Often people found fit for work only provide the necessary evidence when they ask for an appeal.”
There’s one slight problem with this excuse. It’s lack of acquaintance with reality. Far from sick people not providing the correct medical information, the government’s work capability tests specifically do not ask for medical evidence.
Claimants are required to fill in a 20 page questionnaire, which asks about their ability to perform “tasks”. They are then compelled to attend a face to face “medical” in which their ability to perform day to day “tasks” like walking and shopping is interrogated. At no stage in the process is medical information ever requested.
The lack of official curiosity about those pesky medical facts is indicated by this comment from a general practitioner, writing about how one of her patients, “a woman in her 20s who is slowly dementing and will eventually die at a young age”, was found fit for work following a work capability test:
“I believe that this could have been avoided had I been asked to provide a medical report explaining her disability [my italics], prior to the assessment process.”
But no-one in the DWP bothered to ask.
Now, as the government never tires of saying, officially, decisions about whether a claimant is fit for work or not, are not solely based on the result of the work capability test. Theoretically, medical information from the claimants GP or medical specialists is also taken into account. Information, it should be stressed, that is provided when the claimant first applies for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the name for disability benefit. It has to be provided then, or otherwise the claimant wouldn’t get ESA. But for them to continue receiving it, they have to pass the DWP’s work capability assessment and be deemed ‘unfit for work’.
Theoretically, the DWP, based on the medical evidence it has been given, can overrule the decision made by the work capability assessment. I say theoretically because, to my knowledge, this never happens. The DWP just rubber-stamps the decisions made by the work capability test.
So the excuse of a lack of medical evidence is a complete fiction. But if it fails to convince, there is a back up.
2 It’s such a waste of human potential to leave people stranded on benefit for the rest of their lives
“It’s not a financial exercise,” protested then employment minister Chris Grayling when defending the work capability test on the BBC’s Panorama investigation, Disabled or Faking It. “It’s about saying it’s a huge waste of life for so many people to be left at home on benefits, doing nothing.”
“I very passionately believe,” he went on, “that if we could help people back into work, they are much better off than they are if they are left stranded at home on benefits for the rest of their lives.”
The tests are an example of “tough love”, Grayling said.
You can see the documentary here:
A government advisor was more aggressive in defending the government record. “Which part of your progressive tradition says it is ok to just let people rot on benefits their whole lives?” he asked the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr in 2012.
There is one small flaw in this justification. People on Employment and Support Allowance are very definitely not left to “rot on benefits their whole lives”. But in order to understand why, you have to understand how the benefit system works. The government relies on most people, and most journalists, not knowing.
A work capability test classifies claimants into three groups, based on a points system. If they score between 0 and 15 points, the claimant is chucked off benefit altogether and merely told they are free to apply for Jobseekers Allowance. If they score between 15 and 24 they are placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), for people who may be able to do some work or work at some point in the future. Above 24 points, claimants are placed in the support group and it is accepted their medical condition means they will never work.
Far from being left to rot at home on benefits, spending countless days doing watching Jeremy Kyle, people in the WRAG group are required to attend six work-focused interviews, take training courses and very possibly, join the Work Programme and work for nothing. They are compelled to undertake “work-related activity”. Last September, it was revealed that the government wants to dock £71 a week from these sick and disabled claimants who don’t adhere to their “back to work agreements". So they can then “rot at home” on £28 a week, largely because rotting is all they can afford.
Now some appeals against incorrect WCA decisions are because people have been placed in WRAG group when they should have been placed in the support group (this has become more urgent because the government has decided that WRAG ESA is now time-limited for year, meaning that if a claimant’s partner earns more than £16,000, after 12 months, the claimant gets nothing, even though they have often paid National Insurance all their working life).
But the vast majority of appeals against WCA decisions are because people are simply denied all support. They score 0 points and are informed they are ‘fit for work’ and they can apply for Jobseekers Allowance if they wish.
This happened, for example, to a man waiting for heart transplant, kept alive by a portable machine, as well as to a man with terminal brain cancer, a person with no short-term memory, a woman with 90% burns to her body, an incontinent disabled man who is both blind and deaf, and a semi-paralysed woman. To name but a few.
These are people, bear in mind, who have been deemed to be not sick enough to be placed in the WRAG group of claimants, and receive ESA. The people in the WRAG group must be, according to government ideologues, the ones who are left to rot on benefits at home, even though, while rotting, they are subject to benefit cuts for not looking for work with sufficient ardour.
The decision they are fit for work puts sick and disabled people in an impossible position. Their only source of income is removed, whilst they know, even though the DWP pretends not to, that they are unemployable, and so can’t replace the income that is being taken way. They face destitution. I’ve been to four WCA assessments, said cancer survivor Margaret Monaghan, “but they always find I’m fit for work, despite the fact no employer would give me a job in a million years.”
It’s no wonder that the stress caused by this realisation is frequently cited as a reason why so many people, die shortly after taking the work capability test.
Of course, we know, because Chris Grayling said so, that this is not a financial exercise. The fact that ESA claimants get £94 a week while on Jobseekers Allowance, the rate is £71, has clearly not entered the head of anyone in government.
If you still have a lingering feeling that the government is cracking down on shirkers and those faking illnesses, consider an official DWP report from 2011 which found that 55% of those found “fit for work” in work capability tests were living without benefits and without jobs. They were destitute in other words. Thirty per cent were claiming Jobseekers Allowance and just 15% had jobs.
The surveys, though included in a 2011 report, were actually conducted in 2009 – before the current government came to power. Work capability tests, it should be remembered, were introduced by the last Labour government. Their use has been significantly expanded by the incumbent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and its terms have been made even stricter. It seems a racing certainty that the number of people made destitute by the work capability test has increased exponentially.
There is “naught for your comfort” in an honest and truthful appraisal of what the work capability assessment does. You can choose to accept this discomforting reality or you can choose to believe the government’s reassuring fictions of “tough love” and helping people back to work. The decision is yours.