Yesterday’s article on Labour’s attitude to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), used on people applying for incapacity or disability benefits, was probably the most controversial to be published by this site.
Look at the article‘s comment column and you will see the strength of support for this writer’s planned open letter. It calls for Labour to accept that the public opposes the continued use of a system that is responsible for as much death as the WCA undoubtedly is.
You will also see a few critical comments, and it is fair to say that there have been quite vicious attacks on the other social media, including Facebook and Twitter. Let’s try to address some of those.
Some claimed this writer was some kind of agent provocateur who had timed an attack on Labour to ruin its chances – a curious suggestion, considering the report was about someone else’s response to the ill-considered comments of a Labour shadow cabinet member, over which Yr Obdt Srvt could not have had any control.
Some claimed that Labour’s attitude to the WCA has already been addressed by Rachel Reeves’ promise to reform it – even though it cannot be reformed. It is beyond rehabilitation. The Work Capability Assessment serves a twofold purpose: It shovels taxpayers’ money into the hands of private, profit-making firms, and in return those firms do their best to disqualify claimants from receiving payments. If there was no intention to pervert the benefit system, governments would rely on the word of claimants’ GPs and the specialists working on their case. The responsible course of action is to get rid of it – before it kills anyone else.
Some said the Green Party had seized in this as an opportunity to attack Labour. That’s nice for them, but nobody really cares what the Greens do. They said Labour voted for fracking when Labour was the only party that found a way to stop it. They said Labour voted for Tory austerity when Labour was doing nothing of the sort. Let them say what they like.
Most hinged on whether Owen Smith actually said what was claimed, at a meeting a couple of days ago. Here’s Liza Van Zyl, whose Facebook post sparked this controversy: “I was the person who asked the question of the Shadow Sec of State.
“I asked why, given that the WCA has caused a great many more deaths than the Bedroom Tax, is Labour scrapping the BT but not the WCA? He answered that Labour cannot commit to scrapping the WCA because it would look bad in the right wing press and would negatively affect Labour’s election chances.
“My question was clearly about the WCA causing people’s deaths. I stand by my comments.”
Vox Political has also been contacted by another person who was at the meeting, who said: “He did fudge a bit and she left the meeting.”
Later on, according to my contact, another questioner pointed out that the WCA “was introduced to stop people getting money, and the best person to say who can go to work or not is a GP.” This is in line with the view put forward by this blog. “He [Mr Smith] seemed quite happy with that and said after the election [Labour] would look at it”.
Several thoughts occur. Firstly, nobody is suggesting that Mr Smith said Labour was happy about the possibility of people dying, simply because the party wouldn’t stand up to the right-wing press. Let’s make that clear. But he certainly wasn’t going to say Labour would do anything to stop it – certainly not before the election.
So it is clear that Liza was making an honest comment on what Mr Smith was saying, based on knowledge of the subject. We know that the Work Capability Assessment has been a catastrophe for people all over the UK. It is based on a system evolved by criminal US insurance firm Unum, designed to be hugely difficult and stressful. The stress of having to prepare for an assessment kills many, as does that of taking it. Some commit suicide when they are refused benefit, some die from the stress of having to appeal. Some who are granted the benefit die from its requirements – like trying to become ready for work in a year if they’re in the work-related activity group of ESA. Some who are granted benefit die from the strain of being reassessed, sometimes at short notice. Death surrounds the process. When Mr Smith said Labour would not oppose the WCA because of the right-wing press, he was tacitly saying Labour is willing to let these fatalities continue – even if he wasn’t actually saying it.
It’s something that some people have found hard to accept, but that is the message being put out to people all across the UK by Labour’s unwillingness to denounce the process and Liza just happened to be the one who stood up and said it.
As a result, it seems she has been hounded off the Internet. She wrote: “Folks, if you don’t hear from me for a while, don’t worry I’m ok. I’ve given my phone and all means of Internet access to a friend… so that I don’t have to see all the horrible messages I’m being bombarded with.”
Secondly, if Mr Smith’s answer really was a “fudge”, then he has no right to be scandalised by Liza’s response. On Twitter yesterday he claimed it was a “lie”, prompting Yours Truly to put him straight – at length. Perhaps he should apologise for creating the misunderstanding and clarify what he really was saying about Labour’s position instead.
Ah, but (thirdly) he also said that Labour would look at the matter after the election, which touches on something else mentioned in the original article – electoral dishonesty. Voters don’t want a Labour Party that says one thing before the election, in order to keep the press from kicking up a fuss about being “soft on welfare”… and then do another thing after the election. That’s just what the Tories and Liberal Democrats did in 2010. We want a political party that will be honest with its voters and make a firm promise now. Don’t we?
Fourthly, isn’t Labour supposed to be brave enough to fight the right-wing press when it is wrong? What happened to Ed Miliband’s bravado on the subject?
Vox Political has spent nearly two years trying to get the DWP to divulge up-to-date figures on the number of deaths suffered by people going through the claim process that involves the WCA. The last published data – from November 2011 – showed around four deaths every three hours, or 220 per week. That’s a monstrous figure. It seems possible that the DWP may provide new figures soon, and we can hope that the average will be lower – but the sheer weight of punitive measures that have been put in place since 2011 suggests otherwise.
Just as shocking is Labour’s apparent disinterest in changing it. The sheer number of people who have contacted this site – via the comment column, Twitter or Facebook – to say they have tried repeatedly to engage Labour luminaries on the subject, only to get the cold-shoulder, is a scandal in itself.
We’ve already got enough political parties whose leaders are only interested in what they can get for themselves – they’re called the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Labour needs to be better; Labour needs to stand up and do what’s right for everybody.
And that is a big reason why this is so important. Labour is the only party with a hope of kicking the Conservatives back into Opposition. People up and down the country want to support Labour – but can’t, because they don’t believe Labour will support them. That’s the ultimate reason the WCA has to go; it doesn’t help people – it kills them.
If the alternative to being “soft on welfare” is causing the deaths of thousands of people who only asked for the benefits their tax money is supposed to have funded, then ‘One Nation’ Labour cannot afford to have anything to do with it.
Surely you can see that?
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