‘When the Government said they were going to get all these benefit cheats and Dave was called in for a medical, he felt like he was back to square one… It was the stress that killed him, I’m sure.’ – Sandra Groves
We’ve all seen the headlines that expose the people abusing the benefit system. ‘Benefit cheat who pocketed £100,000 by claiming to be wheelchair-bound for TEN YEARS is caught hula dancing on holiday’ , ‘Benefits cheat who stole more than £10,000 claiming he could barely walk was caught push-starting a friend’s car while working as a hotel pastry chef’ and ‘Benefits cheat who claimed he was blind and disabled is caught DRIVING after being given £100,000 in handouts over six years.’
The disability benefit bill has significantly increased over decades and currently stands at £13bn. But let’s put this into some perspective. In a written parliamentary answer to Labour MP, Phil Wilson, the department for Work and Pensions provided him with statistics that revealed while £220 million was lost in fraud and error in disability benefits, only £60 million of this was actually fraud. It is also estimated by the TUC that £25 billion annually is lost from tax avoidance; this includes £13 billion per year by individuals and £12 billion per year from the 700 largest corporations. According to the Newstatesman, over the last few years HMRC has spent £633,000 on publicity around tackling high-end tax avoidance, compared to £17.5m on publicity around tackling benefit fraud.
The Prime Minister claims that Britain has a ‘sick note culture’ and current Work and Pensions secretary Ian Duncan Smith has today referred to the disability benefit system as ‘lifetime rewards‘. Criticising the previous incapacity benefits regime Chris Grayling said: ‘To have such a high percentage who are fit for work just emphasises what a complete waste of human lives the current system has been.’ And thus they have created assessments which are carried out by Atos Healthcare on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
‘Fraud represents less than 1 per cent of total welfare spending, and up to 60 times less than tax avoidance’ – Owen Jones in The Demonisation of the Working Class
But there are worries about the controversial medical tests for people claiming Employment Support Allowance which are being used to slash the country’s welfare bill. The Government has boasted that more than half of new claimants are found ‘fit to work’ – failing to mention that over 300,000 have appealed the decision and almost 40% have won.
These tests have led to more dire consequences for others. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that between January and August in 2011, 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the ‘work-related activity group’ – this group get a lower rate of benefit for one year and are expected to go out and find work. How many people died after being found ‘fit to work’ is unknown as that information was ‘not available’, but it is known that 1,600 people died before their assessment had been completed.
Of course, these figures are bound to include some people who died of something completely unrelated to their benefit claim. But there are plenty of tragic cases such as that of David Groves who died from a heart attack the night before taking his work capability assessment. The 56-year-old worked for 40 years as a miner and telecoms engineer but stopped on doctors’ orders after a heart attack and a string of strokes. His widow Sandra said: ‘When the Government said they were going to get all these benefit cheats and Dave was called in for a medical, he felt like he was back to square one… It was the stress that killed him, I’m sure.’
Brian McArdle died the day after his disability benefits were stopped; suffering a fatal heart attack which relatives insist was caused by stress related to the decision. The 57 year old Scot, was paralysed down one side of his body, blind in one eye, and couldn’t speak — yet Atos stopped his Employment and Support Allowance.
Stephen Hill, 53, of Duckmanton, Derbyshire, also died of a heart attack in December, one month after being told he was ‘fit to work’, even though he was waiting for major heart surgery.
Citizens Advice told the Daily Mirror that it found ‘a number of cases’ of people dying soon after being found fit for work. ‘There seems to be a clear link between the cause of death and the condition they were suffering from that led to the claim,’ said Katie Lane, head of welfare policy.
Prof Malcolm Harrington, the government appointed adviser on testing welfare claimants, admitted the work fitness test was ‘patchy’. He said that as a result of the flaws in the 13 week assessment, some claimants who were genuinely unable to work, have suffered. These comments were made during an investigation by Panorama, where Harrington also stated that: ‘There are certainly areas where it’s still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement.’
The work capability assessments are carried out by the private firm Atos, on a £100million a year contract. The firm made a £42million profit in 2010 and paid boss Keith Wilman £800,000, a 22% pay rise on the previous year. GP Dr Steve Bick went undercover for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme to become an assessor at the company. While training he was told on multiple occasions that the new Employment Support Allowance process is ‘meant to take people off benefit’.
‘As long as you’ve got one finger and you can press a button you don’t score anything for manual dexterity’
Despite repeated claims by the government and Atos that there are no targets for taking claimants off benefit, it was made clear to Dr Bick that if he finds too many people unfit for work, his own assessments will be monitored. The trainer explained: ‘You are being watched carefully for the rate of support group (people who are severely ill or disabled are placed in the support group, they are not expected to look for work and are eligible for the highest level of ESA). If it’s more than, I think, 12 or 13 per cent you will be fed back “your rate is too high”.’
The footage also revealed just how hard it is to be found ‘unfit for work’. The trainer talks through how people with a disability affecting their arms must be assessed: ‘If they have one problem, one frozen shoulder, one impeachment syndrome, one broken elbow, one hand problem, no limb, amputation, they may score a little but the problem has to be bilateral’. When Dr Bick asks what sort of job someone with only one hand might be able to do. The trainer elaborates: ‘As long as you’ve got one finger and you can press a button you don’t score anything for manual dexterity’.
There are a small minority of people that abuse the benefit system and nothing infuriates sections of society more than the thought that people are ‘living it up’ at their expense, despite the fact that benefit fraud as a whole represents less than 1 per cent of total welfare spending, and up to 60 times less than tax avoidance. But what’s more disturbing is that people who are genuinely ill and in need of disability benefits are being declared ‘fit to work’.
I have chronic arthritis in spine, knees and shoulders, at my farce I shuffled in on two sticks, she said I walked in on TWO, I can shuffle 50 yards before having to rest, her “Opinion”? I can walk 200 yards, I cannot sit for more than 30-40 minutes, her opinion? 8 plus hours, I am on 3 high level pain meds, her opinion? They are street drugs, ATOS is paid to fail everyone, I need both knees replacing, I cannot propel a wheel chair any longer, I cannot stand for more than a couple of minutes, I cannot get more than a couple of hours sleep before having to get up and move around. Yet they refuse to take into account MRI results, X-ray results or my medal records. I was failed last October and sent off my appeal straight away, I got a letter stating that I would see a court no later than March, it is now the end of July and have heard NOTHING, they refuse to answer my briefs letters or calls, they refuse to acknowledge letters from my doctor or the copes of my medical records. NOT happy.
– Anon, 31/7/2012
I’m disabled, an ex-soldier, I worked bloody hard until my health failed from the age of 25 until about 3 years ago because of bullying at work and having to bring up 3 kids alone working full time when I divorced I had 3 breakdowns and I’m also ill physically. I’ve done jobs that would make most puke, worked as a carer, on sewage works, factories, offices. But I am on crutches, and have mental health problems and I’m over 50, I’ve even been told by a jobcentre disability adviser (I wanted to go for training, anything to get a job) that I stood no chance at all of getting a job. I am ashamed to be British, ashamed I ever served in the military of a country that treats people like this, I’m ashamed of you all for not standing up against this and by you I mean every British citizen, I’m ashamed of myself because I can’t work, and ashamed of a government that bullies the disabled but makes lords of tax avoiders and drug money launderers.
– Anon, 31/7/2012