Recently the latest Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green announced his intention to overhaul the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the main assessment for the sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). And I am sceptical that this consultation will benefit disabled people.
Yes, the WCA has to be one of the worst aspects of social security, since the abolition of the workhouse. But Green (along with his predecessors who invented and ‘rolled out’ the WCA) are concerned solely with jobs, rather than people’s welfare, and seems to base his thinking on the discredited biopsychosocial model.
ESA is divided into two groups: the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) and the (unconditional) Support Group. Apparently, Green is concerned with the fact that 1.5 million people are in the Support Group.
When ESA was conceived only a handful of people were expected to be in this group. This is partly due to David Freud’s ludicrous conclusion that 1 million people should be removed from incapacity benefit; even though the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) own statistics showed that a negligible 0.1% of people were fraudulently claiming incapacity benefit.
The weasel words used in Green’s ‘consultation’ are alarming. Green states that being in the Support Group gives people:
“the perception they do not have any capability for work and are unlikely to think about when and how they might start to prepare for an eventual return to work as a result of the Work Capability Assessment”.
The reality is that criteria for the Support Group is very harsh. In order to be in the group you need to be unable to carry out very basic tasks such as mobilising 50 metres without the aid of another person, not being able to lift your hand in order to put something in your top pocket or to lift something weighing 0.5 litres.
I am one of the 1.5 million people in Green’s cross hairs. It is true that I am unlikely to think about joining the economically active anytime soon. But I currently have other priorities. I am writing this in my pyjamas, in the evening, having not had a bath in days. I am sitting up in bed with the aid of a leg pillow and metal frame. The mattress has a heated under-sheet to reduce pain in my body. The room is extremely cold, but I do not have the energy to close the curtains, and my wrists are too sore to turn up the radiator.
For most severely disabled people, the sheer act of getting out of bed, getting washed and dressed, every day, is impossible. I’d say for me, realistically, the ideal job would be one that I could do from my bed, in my pyjamas, for a few hours here and there (and that requires limited concentration). Even if such a job existed, it’s extremely unlikely it would provide enough money for me to live on. To put it simply, when you have to weigh up the pros and cons of making a cup of tea, the harsh and competitive world of work is simply not an option.
Green’s reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny. He makes the pronouncement that “a disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life”.
This is simply ignoring reality and just because a reality is bad, this does not prevent it from happening. Wishful thinking cannot reshape the world as we want. The government is insisting that work results in good health and unemployment results in poor health. The reality is the other way round; good health assists employment prospects and ill health causes unemployment. Yes, there are disabled people who work, but they tend to be exceptional people (Stephen Hawking) or the disability is confined to one part of the body with everything else working perfectly .
I have had musculoskeletal disabilities from birth and mental illness since early childhood. By the age of 20, I had been in a car accident and had two nervous breakdowns. Now in my 30s I am predominantly bed-bound, on more medication than I care to admit, and have had a third nervous breakdown (which culminated in being suicidally depressed for over a year).
Has this ‘dictated’ my employment prospects? To state the obvious: yes it has. Nothing can remove my levels of pain, anxiety or stress; my medication, psychotherapy and adaptations only reduce these things, they do not stop them. My energy levels can only be ‘managed’ by taking frequent rests, and no, gradually increasing my activity does not make any difference.
Would I like a job? Yes, I would. But desire does not alter things that are out of our control. It does not change the fact some people outlive their own children, that Donald Trump is taking up residence in the White House next year, or that Game of Thrones will soon be cancelled.