Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life and Death is Not a Game

AS the torch is lit and the media geared for the Paralympic Games due to open next week, let's not forget the sick and disabled people throughout the country who might never make the front-page but do find themselves thrust into the front line fighting this government's determination to make the poorest and weakest in society pay for the wealthy bankers' crisis.

They face the government, determined to slash benefits even if it means spending millions hiring companies to "assess" and advise on claims (and incidentally remove civil servants' jobs by transferring their work to the profit-making private sector). As if they were not ill enough already, they face the worry and ordeal of assessments supposedly to see if they are fit for work, as though there were that many suitable jobs out there even for the able-bodied. (To be fair, this started under the New Labour government. But this lot have happily inherited it).

They also increasingly face harassment and violence from the ignorant lumpen, for whom attacks from the media and government on supposed "benefit cheats" are , like the attacks on "bogus asylum seekers" before, a green light to go ahead with cowardly attacks on the most vulnerable victims they can find.

But these, as we shall see, are not their only enemies.

The top firm making money out of making these "assessments" is ATOS, which just to rub it in is trying to improve its PR image by sponsoring the Paralympics. But the struggle which sick and disabled people are having to go through is not a game. It is a matter of life and death.

Here's an extract from Hansard on a question asked in Parliament in December:

Tom Greatrex: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions how many people have been found fit for work under the work capability assessment who had submitted an appeal against that decision and subsequently died prior to the appeal being heard. [87678]

Chris Grayling: The Department for Work and Pensions does not record the information requested. However, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) management information indicates that between October 2008 and October 2011, the most recent reported period, 31 appeals against decisions relating to work capability assessments have been withdrawn following the notification of death of the appellant. HMCTS cannot identify which of these appeals were against decisions where the appellant was assessed as fit for work.

Fortunately not everybody in the press is covering for the government. Chris Sommerlad and Andrew Penman reported in the Mirror on April 12 that people were dying at the rate of 32 per week after being found "fit" for work and denied incapacity benefit.

"We've used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that, between January and August last year, 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the 'work-related activity group'. "

While the government might not want to even look at the grim statistics, others are not only clocking them but looking further, into the stories behind them. Stories like that of Elaine Christian, whose body was found laying in a drainage stream after she had been reported missing.

"A post mortem revealed she had died from drowning, despite having more than ten self-inflicted cuts on her wrists. The inquest in Hull was told Mrs Christian had been worrying about a meeting she was due to have to discuss her entitlement to disability benefits.

Her spiralling health problems meant she had to give up her job at Cooplands bakery in Greenwich Avenue, where she was described as a cheerful, hardworking and trusted staff member.

George, from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, worked all his life, first as a miner and foundry worker, then as a communications engineer, until a heart attack in 2006 when he was 53.

After a brief stint working self-employed his doctor told him to stop and George applied for ESA. It's worth £91 to £97 a week but like everyone else George got £65 a week - the equivalent to Jobseeker's Allowance - for three months while he waited for his "work capability assessment".

These tests, carried out under a £100million a year contract by private firm Atos Origin, were introduced by the last government. They've been finding up to two in three applicants are "fit to work" - but many appeal and 40% are successful.

In George's 39-minute exam, the "disability analyst" noted that George had angina, heart disease and chest pain, even when resting. But this wasn't "uncontrollable or life-threatening" and George "should be able to walk at least 200 metres".

Atos's report went to the Department for Work and Pensions, where George's heart problems were ignored and he got six sick "points", as he could only stand up for less than half an hour due to pain.

Short of the 15 points needed to get ESA, George was put on Jobseeker's Allowance and told to find work. He appealed, waiting eight months for his case to go to an independent tribunal. There George got nine more points, as he could only walk 100 metres before stopping.

He was put on the "work related activity" group where he got the lower rate of benefit and special help finding a suitable job. But months later George collapsed and died of a heart attack, the day before another Atos medical. His widow is convinced the stress of claiming killed him.

Atos Healthcare has a £110m-a-year contract with the Department of Work and Pensions to assess whether disabled and sick people are entitled to claim the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or whether they are fit for work.

The contract has been the subject of an adverse report from the National Audit Office (NAO) which comes after numerous thwarted attempts by MPs to find out more about the performance targets and financial penalties in place. The government has refused to answer these questions claiming the information is “commercially confidential”.

Secret filming of training given to doctors recruited by Atos suggests that staff are monitored to ensure they do not find excessive numbers of claimants eligible for benefit. Both the government and the company have consistently denied there were fixed targets.

The film also showed some trainers employed by Atos to teach new recruits how to carry out the tests felt uneasy about revised criteria introduced, making it harder for some very severely disabled claimants to qualify for support. No matter how serious claimants problems are with their arms, for example, "as long as you've got one finger, and you can press a button," they would be found fit for work.

Dr Steve Bick, a GP with 20 years' experience, applied for a job as an assessor with Atos to carry out the work capability assessment (WCA), and secretly filmed his training for Channel 4's Dispatches programme. Bick was told by his trainer that he would be watched carefully over the number of applicants he found eligible for the highest rate of disability payments. The trainer tells trainee assessors: "If it's more than I think 12% or 13%, you will be fed back 'your rate is too high.'" When Bick questioned how the company could know in advance the precise proportion of people who needed to be put in this category, the trainer replied: "How do we know? I don't know who set the criteria but that's what we are being told."

One of the trainers admits during a session that the auditing process makes her feel uncomfortable. "It's terrible sometimes, people having [problems with] both hips and both knees, but good hands. Terrible. And you know, we talk about modern work adaptations, but we know how it looks from the other side – there's no jobs for normal people, healthy people. But we have to think this way and sometimes you feel awful because you can't do anything for people. You can't feel sorry and give them the money just because you feel sorry for them ... you will go on targeted audit," she says. (Channel Four Despatches, July 30)

Large numbers of people found ineligible for the benefit are appealing against the decision to find them fit for work; about 41% of those refused support go to tribunal and 30% are subsequently granted the benefit. There have been more than 600,000 appeals since the WCA started, costing about £60m a year.

But clearly many people are either unable to appeal or don't make it through their torment and tribulations to see it through. In the case of Elaine Christian, above, taken from a site called Calum's List, which records such tragedies, the threat of testing and destiution was enough to drive her to her death. Here is another case from Calum's List:

Karen Sherlock – DWP/ATOS Say ”Fit For Work.”

In the midst of ill health and a kidney transplant, Karen spent two years fighting the DWP and ATOS for help.

Her husband Nigel said it was a disgrace she was refused benefits and said her battle finally took its toll on her health. Although she struggled to get out of bed, it was deemed she could work by officials at Atos Healthcare, which assesses benefits claimants on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions. Karen lost an appeal against the decision. In April her £96-a-week benefits were stopped, plunging her into despair as her health deteriorated. Karen died on 8th June.

The Express – Karen Sherlock – Rest In Peace

As I've said, the disabled face more than one kind of assailant.

An interesting one, brought to our attention by a blogger called Reuben on The Third Estate, is Brendan O'Neill, writing in the Daily Telegraph.

"On Tuesday he took the opportunity to smear Calum’s List, a website dedicated to compiling information about those deaths, particularly suicides, where welfare reform has been “alleged to have had some culpability”.

O’Neill used Calum’s List to exemplify what he called the “highly patronising… victorian-style pity-politics” of the campaign against welfare reform. Such campaigners, he said, lack “any constituency of grassroots support, any backing from ordinary people, and so must try to raise an army of dead people instead”. He contrasted such “pity politics” with what he saw as the much better “politics of solidarity”. Calum’s List he said were “exploiting” suicide victims.

The response from Calum’s List illustrated, with absolute clarity, the sheer baselessness of these assertions:

Calum’s List is written by the disabled, and by people who are bereft… a group of disabled people, widows, widowers, bereaved parents and orphans trying to find a voice

This website isn’t exploiting people. It has been put together by FRIENDS, RELATIVES & THOSE DIRECTLY AFFECTED

You may not be suprised to find a writer in the Torygraph picking on people whose exposure of what is happening to claimants and the Welfare State is an embarassment to the government. After all, the newspaper's poor but honest owners, the Barclay brothers, though they also own the Ritz, were reduced to building a £60 million mansion on the Channel isle of Brecqhou so they could get some peace and quiet from the Inland Revenue. They have also had to make cuts of their own. When they took over Littlewoods they stopped the firm's tradition of donating 1 per cent of its profits to charity.

But Mr.O'Neill, who specialises in exposing lefties and people campaigning against austerity, yet evidently failed to do his homework before he made his ill-informed attack on Calum's List, is not just any old right-wing hack.

He began his career at Living Marxism, the journal of the late Revolutionary Communist Party(RCP) (1984-97), which metamorphosed by way of economically rebranding itself "LM" and losing a libel action brought by ITN jounalists whom it accused of inventing atrocities in Bosnia, into something called "Spiked", of which Brendan O'Neill succeeded Mick Hume as editor. O'Neill has written for, among others, The Guardian. The New Statesman, The Australian, the Christian Science Monitor and The American Conservative.

Led by academic Frank Furedi, the RCP/LM was not unique in producing graduates who crossed to the other side. But it distinguished itself by evolving collectively to the Right, shedding those who still thought Marxism had something to do with the working class, so Furedi's high fliers did not need to depart the flock. Besides Brendan O'Neill, and Mick Hume at the Times, there's Claire Fox, founder of the Institute of Ideas, as a regular guest on the BBC's Moral Maze. Her younger sister Fiona, who used to write in LM as Fiona Foster and headed the RCP's front Irish Freedom Movement, was appointed to the Science Media Centre in December 2001, and despite having no scientific background became an "expert" on science and how it was presented.

I've written before about Joan Hoey, who used to write in LM expressing her doubts about the Srebrenica massacre, and was secretary of another RCP front, the Campaign Against Militarism, before going by way of the Centre for Defence & International Security Studies to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and is now the Economist Balkan specialist.

Kate Davies, who as Kate Marshall was general secretary of the RCP, is now well-paid CEO of the Notting Hill Housing Trust, married to a senior officer of Hammersmith and Fulham's armslength Hammesmith Homes, which is divesting the borough of council housing, and has written for London Tories on how local councils can encourage home ownership.

It was a three hour Channel Four programme in which Frank Furedi appeared, challenging global warming fears, that aroused environmentalists' interest in its RCP/LM background and the possible links with business lobbyists. Some time before this I'd been alerted to the RCP guru's evolution by an article he wrote in the Guardian, while still wearing his radical hat, arguing that trade unions and others in this country were far too obsessed with health and safety concerns.

It struck me at the time that in a bourgeois democracy at least, there are fewer occupational hazards and risks for journalists and sociology professors than for say, building workers or quarrymen. (Though those academics who take sides with us on safety may find themselves on blacklists). The assault on health and safety "obsession" became the stuff of tabloid media tales and jokes and now it is the policy of David Cameron's government.

Brendan O'Neill and "Spiked Online" have continued the libertarian campaign against supposed hand-wringing middle class liberals interfering with the responsibility of individuals to look after themselves, though he has plainly come a cropper trying to impose this false picture on the Calum's List initiative.

In line with the same Tory theme, protecting the right to exploit by supposedly defending our "freedom" to be exploited, I see that as someone on the Third Estate has pointed out, O'Neill rejected suggestions there was anything wrong with the treatment of unemployed people used as unpaid "volunteers" for the Jubilee events.

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