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Paralympics success a stark contrast to benefit cuts

Grossly offensive as well as totally hypocritical sums up the presence of David Cameron and George Osborne at the London Paralympics at a time when many people with disabilities are fighting to maintain their meagre benefits.

Osborne was roundly booed when it was announced he was to present a medal. Cameron had a mixed reception. Former prime minister Gordon Brown was cheered, though I don’t know why because it was his government that first targeted the disabled for benefit cuts.

And while the cabinet was being reshuffled in something akin to rearranging of deckchairs on the Titanic, even more cuts in benefits were leaking out.

Sick and disabled claimants could lose 70% of their weekly employment support allowance (ESA) if they refuse to take part in work-related activities, according to plans drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions. At present claimants can be “fined” a maximum of £28.15 a week if they are deemed to break their agreement.

The most vulnerable are those placed in the “work-related activity group” by the private firm and Paralympics sponsor Atos, whose HQ was besieged by protesters last week. Official figures show there are 340,000 in this group, of whom over 11,000 have been fined in the last year.

Campaigners immediately attacked the latest assault on the disabled, with Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, warning that the planned sanctions “risks devastating their mental health".

While Atos is naturally enough in the firing line for their crude “work capability assessments” (WCA) which have resulted in, for example, terminally ill people being assessed as fit for work, the firm is effectively the messenger for all the major political parties.

That much is reinforced today by two Labour MPs, Tom Greatrex and Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister. In an article that previews a debate in Parliament on the WCA, they defend the system, only querying its effectiveness. They are concerned that too many successful appeals show that the system isn’t working. They write:

“Most people agree that we need to focus not on what disabled people can’t do but what they can do. That’s why the idea of a WCA is one most people support, and it’s why Labour introduced it in Government. It’s important that sickness benefit claimants be assessed to demonstrate whether or not they can work.”  

They do not reject the basis of the Atos contract – which is worth £100m a year – but want the tests “improved” and made more competent. But disability campaigners rightly reject this approach, which Labour adopted to appease the right-wing media’s obsession with “benefit scroungers”.

And so it continues under the present regime. The Black Triangle Campaign, which exposes and opposes defamation of the disabled, is currently locked in a war of words with Robert Devereux, the permanent secretary at the DWP.

At issue are remarks made by Terry Moran, the department’s chief operating officer. In July he told hundreds of civil servants that fraudulent disability claimants should have their photographs pinned to "every lamp-post in the streets where they live" to shame them.

Devereux has defended the remarks and rejected accusations that Moran had broken the civil service code with overtly political remarks. John McArdle, a founder member of the Black Triangle Campaign, accused Moran of “playing fast and loose with disabled people’s lives”.

The spirit and success of the Paralympics, with packed venues, stands in stark contrast to the “scrounger” rhetoric put out by ministers and the tabloids alongside the continuing assault on benefits. Cameron and company ought to be told their presence at the Games is not wanted.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
4 September 2012

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