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Proletarian issue 49 (August 2012)
The great British benefits rip-off
Ruling class response to overproduction crisis hits the sick and disabled especially hard.
Amongst the many cuts being made to jobs, pensions, public services and welfare provision in Britain today, the cuts to benefits generally and the benefits of the disabled in particular are perhaps the easiest to recognise as heartless targeting of ‘soft’ (ie, largely defenceless) groups to protect the profits of the rich and powerful.

Disabled people on benefits are stuck in a ‘Catch 22’ situation: do nothing and they hit you with cuts, take to the streets in protest and in all likelihood someone will try to use the fact to prove that you could be working! Yet the disabled have finally taken to the streets, as last year’s series of ‘Hardest hit’ rallies around the country showed. Unfortunately, these demonstrations and rallies were all guided and addressed by social democrats, and to have the likes of Hilary Benn talking about early-day motions is neither inspirational nor of any practical use to those under attack.

Attacking society’s most disadvantaged

Incapacity Benefit (IB) was meant to compensate people for lack of earnings if illness prevented them from working. At the end of the last Labour government, IB was rebranded the ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ (ESA), and an independent medical assessment was introduced.

Hundreds of thousands of disabled claimants have lost around £70.00 per week in the move from IB to the new ESA as private firms who were employed to ‘assess’ claimants during the move from one to the other (presumably on a bonus system) have been declaring virtually everyone fit for some work based on a short examination from a ‘medical professional’ (usually a nurse of some undisclosed type).

According to Nick Sommerland, “The work capability assessments are carried out by private firm Atos, on a £100m a year contract.

“The firm made a £42m profit in 2010 and paid boss Keith Wilman £800,000, a 22 percent pay rise on the previous year.” (‘Thirty-two die in a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit’, Daily Mirror, 5 April 2012)

This ‘professional’ assessor ticks boxes on a form, and in very many cases the outcome is 0 points. This has the effect of putting many claimants off even trying to appeal against the adverse decision, as the required 15 points seems so far out of reach. Yet of those who have appealed, some 40 percent have been successful.

For those who win their claim, however, it is a long and arduous slog to get their money back. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) shamelessly claims in this age of computers that it cannot be done instantly because of the backlog, and 8-10 weeks is now around the average time it takes to change a claimant’s rate to the appropriate one having worked out the difference between what they have been getting and what they should have been getting and multiplying that by the number of weeks/months that they have been underpaid!

Meanwhile, the government carries on enjoying what is in reality an interest-free loan from hundreds of thousands of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country for as long as it can. Of course, that is still better for people than having that money taken away permanently and having then to submit to interviews to explain why they haven’t got a job, even though it is glaringly obvious that very few employers are interested in employing anyone who is not fully fit.

The disabled are then herded into what are mostly completely useless ‘retraining’ courses under threat of losing even more of their benefits if they fail to attend. For the chronically ill, who often are in extreme pain for much of the time, this is a nightmare without end, as jobs are few and no one will employ someone who is obviously incapable of work or even of turning up every day.

An independent website that offers advice and help to claimants trying to retain or regain their benefits pointed out two cases in its latest newsletter of people caught in this trap:

Paul Mickleburgh, one of the world’s longest-surviving kidney dialysis patients is hooked up to a dialysis machine for five hours, three days a week. He’s also had cancer and pneumonia and suffers from spontaneous internal bleeding, brittle bones, a twisted bowel and agonising joint pains as a result of his renal treatment. He’s had four failed kidney donations. To top it all off, Paul has had 14 heart attacks in the last five years and believes his last attack was caused in part by the stress of trying to deal with the DWP.

Sadly, patients with chronic kidney disease are actually more likely to die from associated heart disease than from kidney failure itself. In spite of this, Paul has been placed in the work-related activity group meaning that he is someone who is expected to return to the workplace in the reasonably near future. Paul’s request for this dreadful decision to be looked at again came back with the same result – he should be moving towards a return to work.

Karen Sherlock, a disability activist whose kidneys were failing, was waiting to be put on dialysis. In spite of her very serious condition, Karen was placed in the work-related activity group, meaning that her benefit would soon stop altogether because of the time limit on contribution-based ESA. Karen spent many months fighting that decision. Two weeks ago she finally won her exhausting battle with the DWP and was placed in the support group. This week she died of a heart attack.

One of her friends noted: ‘She was terrified. Beside herself with fear. She lived her last months desperately scared that her family would not survive the onslaught it faced ... She spent her last months fighting for the ‘security’ of £96 a week and the reassurance that it couldn’t be taken away.’

According to Nick Somerland, “More than a thousand sickness benefit claimants died last year after being told to get a job.” These include 53-year-old Derbyshire resident Stephen Hill,who “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. (Op cit)

The Benefits and Work newsletter also commented on a recent speech by the employment minister:

Last month, in a speech to work programme providers at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Chris Grayling the employment minister explained why the Work Programme is not making the profits for the private sector that had been hoped for. His explanation as to why the much-prized incapacity benefit to ESA transfer claimants – for whom providers get paid £14,000 when they place them in work – are in short supply, touches directly on the fate of Karen Sherlock and others like her:

‘We have more people fit for work, and moving to JSA. We have more people needing long-term unconditional support than expected. And those in the middle [work-related activity] group, who would expect before too long to be mandated to the Work Programme, have proved to be sicker and further from the workplace than we expected. So it will take far more time than we predicted for them to be ready to make a return to work.’

In other words, providers will have to be patient, but eventually those £14,000-a-time claimants will be handed over to them ... unless, like Karen Sherlock and an increasing number of other seriously sick people, they die before the bounty can be claimed.” (Benefits and Work, PO Box 4352, Warminster, BA12 2AF, campaign@benefitsandwork.co.uk)

This takes us right to the nub of the issue: under the capitalist system even the robbing of the chronically ill by the government can be turned into a profit-making business for private companies – and in times of crisis like these, such opportunities are too lucrative to be missed!

For the disabled in Britain today, meanwhile, the attacks on living standards have not yet ended. The Disabled Living Allowance (DLA), which helps with extra living costs and transport for the disabled, is the next target.

Neil O’Brien reported recently that Iain Duncan Smith has pledged to “introduce an independent medical assessment, so that only those who really need the benefit get it”. For anyone who has gone through the process of moving from IB to ESA described above there will undoubtedly be a feeling of déjà vu.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) thinks a new, independent medical assessment might reduce the number of people awarded the benefit by around half a million. It will even get a friendly-sounding new name: the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).” (Daily Telegraph, 14 May 2012)

Meanwhile, the Guardian has reported that “Some long-term sick and disabled people face being forced to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut under plans being drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mental health professionals and charities have said they fear those deemed fit to undertake limited amounts of work under a controversial assessment process could suffer further harm to their health if the plans go ahead.

The new policy, outlined by DWP officials in meetings with disabilities groups, is due to be announced after legal changes contained in clause 54 of the Welfare Reform Bill have made their way through parliament.

The policy could mean that those on employment and support allowance who have been placed in the work-related activity group (Wrag) could be compelled to undertake work experience for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers. The Wrag group includes those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident and stroke victims; and some of those with mental health issues.” (16 February 2012)

The way forward

The plain fact is that all the provisions of the ‘welfare state’ under conditions of capitalism could only ever have been a temporary concession made to workers. After the second world war, when the tide of revolution was running high in the world, the imperialist ruling classes were much weakened – and they feared for the very survival of their system.

It was in that situation that our rulers agreed to allocate a portion of their superprofits (gained from intensified looting and suppression of colonial peoples abroad) to creating some of the facilities that had previously only been available to workers in the Soviet Union – free health care, free access to university education, guaranteed social housing, benefits for the sick and the unemployed, and so on.

In this way, workers were lulled into a false sense of security after these concessions had been made to them. They allowed themselves to believe (encouraged by the social-democratic leaders of the Labour party, trade unions etc) that perhaps capitalism really could deliver everything they needed after all. And so the working-class movement aimed at the overthrow of British imperialism was progressively decimated, as was the trade-union movement aimed at securing and protecting rights for workers under the conditions of capitalism.

Add to that the collapse of the USSR and the east European socialist states, and, as far as our ruling class was concerned, the need for such expensive concessions for buying social peace was at an end. Moreover, the deepening crisis of capitalist overproduction, in which gigantic corporations are engaged in a ruthless struggle for survival and are desperately competing to find profitable activities for their bloated capital reserves, means that the ruling class’s ability to pay for such ‘optional extras’ is also disappearing.

It could not be more obvious that it will only be through the replacement of capitalism by a socialist system of production that the disabled and long-term sick will be permanently released from penury and insecurity. It is only under socialism that they and everyone else will be encouraged and supported in playing as much of a role as they are capable of in production for need (see for example the report of our delegation to Cuba, elsewhere in this issue, for information on the care of the disabled in a socialist society).

In such a society, the focus will not be on private accumulation of profit, but on all-round provision of necessities, as well as on education, development, care and support. As the exploitation of man by man is finally eliminated, a society truly fit for human beings will emerge – and all members of that society will finally start to be given opportunities to develop their true potential and make their unique contribution.
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