On the day when 25,000 people marched in Edinburgh, protesting at £81 billion of cuts in public spending, including huge cuts in welfare, an article appeared in ‘The Scotsman’ about Incapacity Benefit (IB). Gerry Hassan called for a welfare-debate, and claimed that high numbers of people on IB in places like Glasgow could be explained by high numbers of men who had failed to adjust to the loss of traditional ‘male’ jobs and roles as breadwinners. That most people are on IB for a wide variety of other, real health problems was not mentioned. Also not mentioned was – for the last two years, people don’t claim IB, but the harder-to-get Employment Support Allowance (ESA), assessed by a notorious private health company. This benefit is designed to eventually replace IB.
Welfare is a complex subject. Yet, some welfare facts are brutally simple. Around 2.5 million people on IB are a testimony to the fact that the experience of living and working under a decaying British capitalism has proven damaging to the health of many. Respiratory illnesses from damp housing, smoking, or poor working conditions; heart-conditions; arthritis; cancer and other diseases; muscular injuries; and a vast range of mental health problems – all make it hard for people to work; and all have added to numbers on IB. Yet, you would look in vain for any of these in Gerry’s article. Mental health problems are mentioned generally as accounting for 52% of IB claimants in Glasgow. Yet, nothing is said of the well-documented link between these problems and high levels of deprivation. Instead, one specific problem is focused upon – albeit with a fuzzy lens – the new syndrome of male inability to cope with loss of male jobs. Contrasted to this is the growing numbers of women in low-paid, part-time jobs, held up as a good thing because then they are not on IB! growing numbers of women who have work-related stress is not mentioned, although that would also have been relevant in discussing IB figures.
To begin a discussion on welfare by thinking benefits are the problem leads directly to the bizarre cul-de-sac of suggesting that male claimants attitudes are the source of their own illness. Entirely missing from this way of looking at the world are the massive health inequalities in Scotland – a product of decades of neglect by successive governments – Tory, Labour, and now: coalition. People die several years earlier in the poorest areas of Scotland, compared to wealthy areas, because their lives are so much harder. Instead of acknowledging this, we have the statement that IB ‘is a one-way ticket to never working again’, as people are stigmatised by employers. Whilst ex-IB claimants certainly need support to overcome any stigmatisation, what about – prolonged mass unemployment; and actual long-term health problems exacerbated continually by poverty? Surely these are the ‘one-way ticket’.
Welfare may be complex, but it is also a practical issue: public spending cuts are making the lives of the poorest in our society worse. Yet, Gerry argues: ‘We cannot go back to a…non-debate of ‘Tory cuts’ versus ‘welfare scroungers’’. Coming at a time of £81 billion pounds of cuts, this is a wee bit irresponsible! Iain Duncan Smith is praised for being shocked ‘after his visit to Easterhouse…by the scale of apathy and disconnection.’ This did not stop him from driving through other attacks on IB claimants. 78% of the 842,100 people on IB reassessed by the DWP over the past year have been declared ‘fit for work’ or gave up the long fight before medical assessments were completed.
It is all very well calling for a debate on welfare, and for support to be given to ex-IB claimants seeking to enter a depleted jobs-market, but to ignore what is actually happening on the ground is not helpful. Most glaring of all the gaps in Gerry’s mightily flawed analysis is the failure to mention IB’s replacement ESA – the dissonant music of the future for all claimants. It is policed by Atos Healthcare, masters of the art of saying: No! In March 2010, the Citizens Advice Bureaux and 18 other organisations launched a report condemning the way people are assessed for ESA: ‘medical examiners miss vital details, make unjustifiable assumptions, and don’t place enough emphasis on the impact of mental health issues on the ability to work.’ 69% of those assessed are denied benefits – they have included individuals with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, severe post-traumatic stress, and many other serious conditions. One example gives a picture of the peculiarly brutal approach of the private health experts: ‘the client’s Amputation of Upper Limb is mild. They have seen a specialist for this problem.’ Benefits denied. (Source Rightsnet Forum, 2010).
Every day, across the country, welfare rights workers and volunteers fight cases like this.
The cuts threatening our communities will be met with mass defiance. In that battle, clear thinking about the real issues will also be needed,