Tag Archives: mental health problem

Ashamed to be British as prejudice and bigotry stalk the streets

“Too many people in this country wallowing in their own self-pity who will find the slightest reason to avoid doing a day’s work. Get them out to work by force and take their money off them. I dont see why I should work so hard and pay so much tax to pay for the lazy and workshy to sit at home.”

There is so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to start. It is a genuine comment, made in response to a BBC news article, and describes the writer’s reaction to a report that the National Audit Office has discovered problems with the contract between the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos, the company hired to carry out work capability assessments on people claiming Employment and Support Allowance. The test works on a points-based system – 0 points means you are ‘fit for work’, while 15 or more mean you must receive benefit.

The report sparked a debate on the suitability of Atos to be running the assessment system, the value of the system itself, and also the honesty of claimants – the last group inspiring the headline at the top of this article.

Let’s recap a few facts: Less than 0.4 per cent of disability benefit claims are fraudulent. The Work Capability Assessment is designed to ensure that 87 per cent of disability benefit claimants are pushed onto Jobseekers Allowance within a year of taking the test (as proved by both Channel 4’s Dispatches and the BBC’s own Panorama). That’s 217.5 times as many claimants as are committing fraud and therefore must include some people who are entitled to the benefit. The Work Capability Assessment is a computer-based ‘tick-box’ assessment that is carried out by people who are not medical professionals; the opinion of a claimant’s own GP is, it seems, ignored.

Now let’s look at some of the comments. All emphases are my own:

“The fact is our benefits system is clogged to the hilt with benefit cheats and people avoiding work.” So 0.4 per cent amounts to being “clogged to the hilt”? I don’t think so.

“Unfortunately the “bad back brigade” who have fleeced the system over the many years have wrecked it for the genuine disabled. Very sad.” This person thinks they know exactly what claimants are saying, despite never having experienced an assessment. I doubt they have even spoken to a person who has taken one.

“The whole problem has been created by the vast majority of malingerers who think they are entitled to something for nothing.” Vast majority – less than one-two-hundredth of claimants is a vast majority in this person’s mind.

“If you’re genuine and unfit for work then the test will show it. Please don’t worry. However, you fraudsters out there who sponge off us hard working taxpayers: It’s not on, that you can sponge like you’ve been doing for so long. Go and get a job or create your own way of earning a living. If it wasn’t for you the country wouldn’t be in such a mess, most of our taxes are given to you lazy sods.” Where do I start with this one? Try this: Less than one per cent of tax money is spent on benefit payments for the sick and disabled (according to the Daily Mail).

“As someone who knows the WCA very well I can easily say that 90 per cent of the so-called disabled people claiming are nothing short of fraudsters. Start giving these fraudsters 10 years for their deception and see how many continue to claim. Those who are disabled and genuinely can’t work have nothing to worry about.” We’ll get to comments from those who are disabled and genuinely can’t work, a little later in this article. Remember the claim, though: They have nothing to worry about.

“I can name a dozen who COULD work but are claiming disability! In fact, I’m begining to wonder if I’m the only bloody one working in my postal code!!!! One scrounger is off of work with some wrist injury, but doesn’t stop him [doing] cash-in-hand jobs or being at pub. I thought Dave “Everyone deserves an holiday” Cameron was going to crack down on this? I see no evidence of it whatsoever…” A classic case of someone seeing only what they want to see?

“There are people out there who abuse the system at our expense. We all know of at least one, maybe more, such case…. I’m no medical expert but I know if someone’s on DLA and out driving a taxi or whatever then he/she’s a fraudster. They should be reported.” For the record, DLA (Disability Living Allowance) is an in-work benefit; it is intended to make it easier for disabled people to manage the extra expenses incurred by their disability and make it possible for them to have a job. This person is completely mistaken.

“So many people use ESA as a means to escape having to look for work. I see it every single day.” Oh! This is a good one. For information, only the support group of ESA claimants get the benefit without having to look for work; the work-related activity group receive the benefit for one year only, during which time they are expected to attend interviews and courses intended to make it possible for them to get a suitable job. After the year is up, they are taken of ESA and put on Jobseekers’ Allowance (which is cheaper for the government as it pays less money). Those in the support group aren’t expected to seek work because of the nature of their disability and the high likelihood that their condition is terminal – between January and August 2011, official figures show that 5,500 people in the support group lost their lives.

All right.

To balance these views, below are some comments from people with genuine experience of the system – claimants or those close to them. Before we get to them, let’s remind ourselves that the UK is experiencing a dramatic increase in violent hate crime against the disabled, as I have reported in a previous blog. Since 2009, these crimes have increased by 60 per cent nationwide; in my own police force area they multiplied fourfold between 2010 and 2011.

My belief is that government propoganda, coupled with hysterical reporting of so-called benefit scroungers in the right-wing press, has served to whip up hatred against this tiny section of society – those who are the most vulnerable and the least able to protect themselves. Divide and conquer has always been the Conservative way. They don’t want people to be angry at them, so they create another bogeyman for folk to hate instead. It’s a strategy that worked very well in Germany during the 1930s.

So how do the disabled react to claims that they are mostly fraudulent, lazy scroungers?

“Absolute rubbish. Do you know the medical records of all these people you claim are fraudulent? Or are you just taking a guess. The media sensationalise the 0.5 per cent of claims that are fraudulent, but what about the stories of the other 99.5 per cent? The propaganda is sickening.”

“Genuinely sick and disabled people are judged as fit for work and demonised by the Govt. Little wonder that fools abuse the sick and disabled folk who are ‘officially’ labelled as scroungers.”

Let’s see how Atos treats benefit claimants, shall we?

“Took my neighbour to a tribunal [I think they mean a Work Capability Assessment], member of tribunal helped me almost carry her in. Result…. fit for work! Well done Atos, you’ll get YOUR money.”

“My sister has MS, an auto-immune disease that varies in severity from day to day. On the days she’s mobile enough to attend an assessment, she’s told she’s fit to work, and her benefits get cut. On days she can barely move or see, she simply has her appointment rescheduled to when she is better. It’s a catch-22, and the stress of it has landed her back in hospital on more than one occasion.”

“My daughter-in-law’s father had an Atos medical, he is on morphine for a severe back condition that he has had surgery for, his pain management clinic say he is unemployable, guess what Atos say he is?”

“My brother is severly autistic. He has no speech, can’t read or write, severe learning difficulties, epilepsy, and stays in residential care. My mum got a phonecall demanding a phone interview with my brother to assess his fitness to work. They then sent a completely inappropiate form to fill out (adressed to my brother) asking about his fitness to work. Whole thing was an upsetting disgrace.”

“I have had the same debilitating disease for 29 years, got the full 15 points needed for the benefit at my first medical, then on the second they decided to give me 0. After an 8 month wait a Judge upheld my appeal against the 0 points. And now three months later the government want me to go through the same medical assesment again.”

“Before I’d ever heard of ATOS, I received a phone call from them at home one Friday evening at 8 o’clock. The person demanded that I give them my name, date of birth and National Insurance number. I said I wasn’t prepared to disclose any personal information to someone I didn’t know, whereupon I was told that, unless I did, they would suspend my benefits. I hung up. Shameful, but typical, of them.”

“I was on ESA because I have fibromyalgia, and am often in so much pain, I can hardly walk. I was ‘assessed’ and found to be capable of working. The letter informing me of this decision had been backdated 1 month, making it impossible for me to appeal the decision (within 1 month of the date at the top of the letter). There was no proof I got the letter late, though, so it was no good trying.”

“I have won my case at two tribunals and now I wait for a third. Once I one the first DWP really wanted me hence my third tribunal. Each tribunal takes approx 14months to happen. Life is very difficult during the wait costing me dearly healthwise. I had no income since April 30th this year. Atos always give me 0 points the judge has always given me max.”

The stress caused by the Atos/DWP treatment of claimants means that an average of 32 sick or disabled people are dying every week, while going through the assessment regime or the appeal process after being passed ‘fit for work’.

Now let’s see some genuine accounts of how disabled people are treated on the streets:

“I get abuse nearly every time I go into town because of my disability. It’s not even worth going to the supermarket anymore, I’d rather get somebody else to go for me.”

“Me and my husband have degenerating arthritis and several other medical conditions. I get abused and called ignorant because people don’t look where they are going and expect me to jump out of the way of their trolleys in the supermarket because I walk too slowly.”

“When [X] goes to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread, he can be subjected to sly comments and in some cases threatening abuse, just because he is youngish and using a walking stick. These same people will go next door to the bank and put on a nice smile for the counter girl. He now goes out when it’s raining when few people are about. I’m ashamed to be British.”

Many have been put off claiming the benefits that the law says they should receive, because of the stigma attached to them – which is, of course, what our Tory-led government wants. The aim of the exercise, as I mentioned above, is to get as many people off benefit as possible. How they live thereafter is of no interest to the government; it just doesn’t want to pay people what they are entitled. And the plan is working. A huge proportion of the population is failing to claim benefits to which it is due. Here’s what some have to say:

“I have had my biggest relapse of a long-term condition in 20 years and have been off sick 5 months. I have not gone on to benefits yet for fear of being penalised as have read the horror stories on many health related blogs.”

“Before I reach retirement age I will not be able to work. I am, frankly, terrified of the world I might live in by then and cannot help feeling that the hope of some is that we die before we reach the wrong side of the balance sheet.”

“It’s a scary time to be a disabled/ill person; if the condition doesn’t kill you the government are trying to do it through stress and uncertainty.”

But most are unbowed, and have vowed to fight to the end:

“I started working when I was 13 carried on until my wife’s accident. I have paid in far more than I will ever get out. I object in the strongest possable terms to being called a scrounger and fraudulent,” wrote one.

And another pointed out: “90 per cent of cases are won at appeal if you take a specialist advisor to your appeal. 40 per cent are won if you go alone. Don’t give up.”

As was once declared next to an airbrushed picture of David Cameron, on hoardings across the country, “We can’t go on like this”. But people won’t vote for the most popular alternative – Labour – unless that party vows to put forward a fair and balanced assessment process for the sick and disabled, ending the sick-minded prejudice against the most vulnerable in society.

I say: As soon as Labour promises this, let’s have an election.

Welfare reform: will the Lords hold their nerve?

Today (February 14), the House of Lords will be debating the Welfare Reform Bill from 2.30pm. This is the Bill they sent back to the Commons with seven amendments, which MPs reversed out of hand. The government went on to state it would us ‘financial privilege’ rules to push the legislation through Parliament in its original form – an entirely undemocratic move that has led many to question the legality of the government’s tactics, and some to call for the Queen to deny Royal Assent to the Bill, on the grounds that it will not have been passed “in good faith”.

I think we all know by now that the aim of this Bill is to harm disabled people. The government has tried to create a myth about them being “benefit scroungers”, sponging off the State, but that has not succeeded with anyone other than readers of the Daily Mail. Ministers just want to take money away from those who are least able to defend themselves. Shame on them.

The question now is whether the Lords are prepared to stand up to the Coalition. Will they oppose the derisory attitude of their counterparts in the Commons, or will they just roll over and let democracy die out? How do they feel about the fact that their amendments were overturned? What do they think about the ‘financial privilege’ furore?

I suppose we’ll find out this afternoon, starting at 2.30pm.

For those of you with a deeper interest in the issues, I urge you to read Sue Marsh’s Diary of a Benefits Scrounger, but I will leave you with a quotation from today’s column: “At some point we must say “enough”. At some point, we have to accept that we have a broken system, broken procedures and that “majority rule” is not enough. If we have no checks and balances, no way to influence outcomes or mitigate harm, then the Commons is effectively a dictatorship – once elected free to wreak havoc wherever they see fit. Nothing in a manifesto, no hint of things to come, just a majority, cobbled together to deny process.”

I warned last week that we are seeing the signs of a dictatorship here. Do you really want to live under tyranny?

Welfare Reform Bill: a request for information

In April last year I wrote to my MP, Roger Williams (Liberal Democrat) regarding the Welfare Reform Bill and changes to Disability Living Allowance. He had sent me a letter from Maria Miller (a DWP minister, I believe), claiming that it should reassure me. It didn’t.

Now, as the government is ramrodding this vile Bill through Parliament using a procedure that is not valid (as far as any of us can tell), I’d like to resurrect some of the issues I raised with him then, and ask whether any of them have changed in the 10 months since.

If any readers have answers for me, or stories about their own experiences, please send them to me via the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the page.

‘According to the letter,’ I wrote, ‘there will be an “objective assessment of an individual’s need”, developed alongside “a group of independent specialists in disability, social care and health, which includes disabled people”. Who are these independent specialists? To which organisations do they belong? Are any of them members of groups which have previously criticised the assessment of Incapacity Benefit claimants, on which the DLA assessment will be based? This letter does not provide that information.’

Does anyone know, today, who these people might be?

‘The letter states: “I can assure you that it (the allegedly-objective assessment of an individual’s need) will not only take into account physical impairments, but also mental, intellectual, sensory and cognitive ones. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments.”

‘Before continuing, I would like to point out that taking information into account is not the same as making a decision based on it, and this comment cannot, therefore, be taken as an assurance of fairness.

‘As I understand it, the assessment will be carried out with the help of a computer, as has been the case with Incapacity Benefit since the new assessment for that benefit was introduced. Is this really the best way of analysing a person’s fitness for work? I don’t think so, and neither do charities working with the disabled, who have described it as a “blunt and unsophisticated tool”.

‘Let’s stay with the Incapacity assessment for a while. I think it is useful to use it as a way of gauging how the new DLA assessment will work because the latter will be based on the former. Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, we have all heard how people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work. In addition, people with mental health problems have complained their condition has not been taken seriously, and people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. “Ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments”? It doesn’t seem likely, in my opinion. Certainly not “effectively”.

‘A revised, even more stringent version of the assessment means blind claimants who can get around safely with a guide dog will be forced onto jobseekers allowance, as will deaf claimants who can read and write. Taking into account sensory impairments? Do you think this claim is justified?’

Is this still true?

‘To continue receiving benefit, a person must score 15 points. However:

‘*Claimants who can’t walk but who can use a manual wheelchair will no longer score points;’

Still accurate?

‘*References to hands have been removed from the picking up activity specifically in order to make it harder for amputees to score points;’

Is this still the case?

‘and *Some activities have simply been cut from the test altogether. For example, the activity of ‘Bending and kneeling’, for which 30 points are currently available, is to be completely removed for ‘health and safety reasons’ as people should not ‘bend forward when lifting’.’

Is this still the case? It seems strange to cut something from a test for health and safety reasons when at-work threats to a person’s health and safety are precisely the reason they are taking the test!

‘Half of all the scoring descriptors for mental health and learning difficulties have also been axed, making it much harder to get benefit for people with conditions such as depression or anxiety.’

Still true?

‘At the end of each session, the computer program generates a 25-page report summarising the person’s general state of health, and fitness for work. People with severe health problems who have been given zero points say that they have told their assessors what was wrong with them, and been met with a “computer-says-no” response.’

Still true?

‘Receipt of DLA means many claimants can also get free improvements to their homes from Social Services,’ I wrote. ‘How are disabled people supposed to get these improvements if they are downgraded to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which provides a lower amount that will be entirely spent on subsistence?’

I added that there is a level of vindictiveness in the assessment system, also.

‘The Guardian has reported on one man who was given only nine points in his first WCA, but went to tribunal, where the judge found him eligible for the higher level of benefit. Shortly after the tribunal he was called for another assessment, and this time was awarded zero points. At the time the article was printed, he was waiting to appeal a second time.

‘Part of the assessment has assessors extracting information sideways from claimants. People are asked: ‘Do you watch EastEnders or Coronation Street?’ If they say yes, then that’s interpreted as meaning they can sit in a chair for 30 minutes, and that they can concentrate for 30 minutes, and the assessor can then put this on their profile as indicating they are able to work. Ability to watch a TV show does not equal ability to work.

‘Assessors observe the claimants’ demeanour during the test. One report, explaining why a woman with mental health problems had been found ineligible for the benefit, states as justification that she “did not appear to be trembling . . . sweating . . . or make rocking movements”. The DWP manual states “rocking may indicate anxiety”. It may indeed, but this is not – and should not be interpreted as – the only possible indication of anxiety.

‘Let’s get back to the letter,’ I wrote. ‘It states: “Currently there are 11 possible different rates at which DLA can be paid, which makes it complex to administer. We are proposing two rates of benefit payable for each component. This will simplify the overall structure and make it easier to understand.” Hold on a moment! So what this means is the current system involves a bit of thought on the part of administrators that, reading between the lines, the current government is not prepared to support. Simplifying the structure would mean fewer different rates of payment – so there’s a saving to be made there – and also there will be a need for fewer people to administrate the system – so there’s another saving to be made.

‘This is all about money, isn’t it? Mr Grayling can carry on that there are no targets until he’s blue in the face, but the facts are telling a different story.’

I’m willing to bet that none of the above has changed, but I’d like to read comments from people who are more familiar with the system than I am.

I’d like to leave you with this thought: In 1930s Germany, the Nazis had the Jews. In today’s UK, the Coalition has the disabled. How long will it be before someone dies?

Or has that happened already?

Where’s the benefit?

Why is it so hard to get statutory organisations that pay state benefits – for example, unemployment benefits – to list off for claimants everything that it’s possible for them to claim?

That one has vexed me for more than 20 years.

I remember asking about it back when my sainted mother was working for Age Concern in Bristol, and having to explain the benefits system to the pensioners who attended her day centre – because the authorities wouldn’t.

The simple answer is, they “don’t have a mandate to do that”. In other words, nobody has told them they should.

This isn’t the same as saying that they should not, mind!

It’s really very similar to the logic the banks used when they made all those extravagant loans, with money they didn’t have, that ended up overbalancing the economy. The government had been persuaded not to enact regulations that would prevent the banks from behaving irresponsibly with their depositors’ money, having been told that it wasn’t needed.

Since there was no law telling them to be prudent with our cash, their argument now is that nobody told them not to be as rash as they turned out to be.

Everybody knows how the banks crippled the UK economy, but it seems to me that – on a smaller scale – the benefits providers are also harming it.

Yes, I know they’ll tell you they’re helping.

But look: If a person finds themself going into debt, the effects on their mental (and sometimes physical) health can completely remove them from economic activity, making them a liability rather than an asset to the country, as we’ve seen many times. What I mean by this is that, if someone is on benefits, but they aren’t enough to keep them solvent (because they haven’t been told they can claim other money as well) then the stress can harm their mental and physical health – making them a burden on the NHS as well as the benefits system.

Would it not, therefore, be far better to ensure that these people – if they qualify for extra help – are kept afloat and put in the best possible position to get back on their feet after a setback?

Withholding information on how to do that is a false economy.

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In my opinion.

It’s not what you say – it’s how you say it

“This is a politically correct item from The Guardian…: ‘I was angered that [a reporter] found it necessary to mention that an assailant was black. The mention of colour in connection with crime is something I have come to expect from tabloids, not quality newspapers.”

“The Guardian replies: ”Black cab driver’ referred to the fact that the colour of the cab was black.'”

The above is a quote from The News Quiz, the humorous BBC Radio 4 panel show, c.1992. While The Guardian was correct in its use of language, on that occasion, it did give rise to misinterpretation and therefore the article could have been written in a clearer way.

I mention it because in the last few days we have been blessed – if that’s the word – with outbursts from two more public bodies that were similarly unwise.

The first public body I’d like to mention belongs to Diane Abbott MP who, as is fairly well-documented by now, had to apologise for any offence caused by comments she made on Twitter, after claims were made that they were racist.

In response to journalist Bim Adewunmi, who complained about the use of the terms “the black community” and “black community leaders” in the media after the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, she tweeted: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’.”

Diane was making a valid point but in a clumsy way. There really is no reason to define any community by the ethnicity, or dominant religion, supermarket preference or whatever, of the people who live in it. Generally speaking, these places already have names attached to them.

Years ago, when I was still working in Bristol, I was asked to attend a public meeting in St Paul’s. As I recall, it referred to a violent attack on a member of the community there by someone from elsewhere, who had not yet been brought to justice.

I was very nervous about going because racial tensions were quite high as a result of this case – and my anxiety was heightened when I arrived, and found that the only other white face, in a room filled with more than 100 people, was on the clock.

I need not have concerned myself at all. I could not have been made more welcome; everybody there was delighted that I had come to give publicity to their concerns. I may even have stayed behind for a while after the meeting, for a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a bit more background information, I can’t remember for sure.

Did I say anything about being in a ‘black’ community in my article? Not at all. The question of the attack being racially motivated was an issue at the time, but there was no need to blow it out of proportion by saying anything that could suggest this was about an entire ‘black’ community setting itself against ‘white’ people. That would have been absurd.

So I sympathise with Diane Abbott’s intention in agreeing that there was no need for the colour of the community leaders to be mentioned. Unfortunately, she let her typing finger run away with her and negated the very point she was trying to make.

Contrast that with a certain Mr Cameron – who appears to be the Prime Minister – and his deliberate, disparaging reference to people with Tourettes Syndrome.

In an interview (published in the Telegraph, if I recall correctly), Mr Cameron was quoted as saying that facing Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, during Prime Minister’s Questions is “like having someone with Tourette’s sitting opposite you”.

What an insensitive thing for a man in his position to say!

And how typical of the government’s appalling attitude to people with disabilities of any kind – including Tourettes. I have already written several articles on this blog, referring to some of these casually dehumanising policies, and linking to others.

Mr Cameron has drawn much flack for his jibe – and rightly so – but, unlike Diane Abbott, he hasn’t been asked to resign as a result. But his crime is worse, in my opinion.

He was deliberately drawing a comparison between a leading Opposition Member of Parliament and people with a debilitating and humiliating condition that was intended to belittle that man.

I think we can all be certain that he wasn’t asking anyone to sympathise Mr Balls for living with a condition that means he has motor tics that seriously limit his mobility, or makes him punch himself in the head repeatedly, or that he “shouts ‘biscuit’ 16 times every waking minute of the day, as I do?” (according to Jess Thom’s recent Guardian comment).

No, he was drawing on the misconception that everyone with Tourette’s is incoherent and swears all the time, and he wanted people to look down on Mr Balls – and therefore on people with Tourette’s.

This is vile behaviour, especially from a man whose own son was disabled until his tragic death in 2009, at the age of six. Mr Cameron should have known better.

“I was speaking off the cuff, and if I offended anyone of course I am very sorry about that. That wasn’t my intention at all,” Cameron told BBC television on Sunday.

I’m sorry too. Because, as apologies go, that just isn’t good enough. We have a right to expect more from our national leaders.

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Battling the government’s benefits lies – with Boris!

I never thought I would agree with anything Boris Johnson said. We truly live in interesting times.

Boris has put his weight – and let’s be honest, he’s not exactly slimline – behind a report published today (January 9), finding that the government misled MPs and Peers over the hostility to disability benefit reform. It finds that Parliament has been given only a partial view of the overwhelming opposition to the Coalition’s planned reforms of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and – crucially – that this opposition was previously not released to public scrutiny by the government.

The report, Responsible Reform, is based on the responses to the government’s own consultation on its planned DLA reforms, which were only made public once disabled people requested them under the Freedom of Information Act. It was compiled, as I understand it, by disability blogger Sue Marsh and Dr Sarah J Campbell. According to the report:

98 per cent of respondents objected to the qualifying period for benefits being raised from 3 months to 6 months;

99 per cent of respondents objected to Disability Living Allowance no longer being used as a qualification for other benefits;

92 per cent opposed removing the lowest rate of support for disabled people.

In all three cases, as well as many others, London’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson also objected to the proposed changes.

Other findings were as follows:

There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform;

The government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants;

The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and

learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable;

98 per cent of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months;

90 per cent opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used by ATOS to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA); and

Respondents to the consultation repeatedly warned that the government’s plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Boris called for the Government to retain the three-month qualifying period, saying the increase to six months will mean that people with fluctuating conditions would have increased difficulty in qualifying.

“People with fluctuating conditions face the same barriers that all disabled face in relation to higher costs of living and DLA is essential to maintain a decent quality of life,” he said.

I agree. I have a person very close to me who is now on DLA, but had to fight for years to get it. She became disabled due, she thinks, to poor working conditions in the factory where she was employed. This created a physical condition which put her in pain all the time. She tried to soldier on but in the end had to take so much time on sickness that the company sacked her. It has never accepted any responsibility, on health and safety grounds for her disability and it is impossible to prove.

There then followed years of trying to prove that she was entitled to DLA. The DWP adamantly refused to accept the claim she made herself, and it was only with the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau – after several years of trying – that my friend’s claim was accepted on an indefinite basis. In the meantime, she had been sliding into debt because Boris was right, she could not meet the cost of living.

Now she is able to make ends meet – just about – but her condition fluctuates. Some days she is able to go about her business (by which I mean normal housekeeping work, cooking, washing… you get the idea) without any help; other days she can’t move for the pain.

I can picture DWP employees salivating at the thought of getting their hands on her again, and revoking her ‘indefinite’ claim. That would be the end of her.

The thought of telling this woman that the government has lied to the public in order to push through this reform, quite frankly, terrifies me. The situation has been aggravating her increasingly since it first came to light that the government wanted to cut back on DLA and I don’t know what it would do to her mental health, which is also fragile.

How long do we tolerate a government that lies to the electorate in order to push through injustices?

I’ll leave you with a comment I wrote to the Guardian, at the beginning of 2011, which I think still describes the situation very well:

“When I came downstairs today to make some lunch for my friend (who is disabled) I found her in tears. It seems today’s frosty weather has aggravated the chronic pain she suffers every day in her back and shoulders, that was brought on many years ago by poor health and safety conditions in the factory where she worked. The situation had been overlooked many times by inspectors – who made appointments to visit the factory, in order to ensure that the managers had plenty of time to make sure all was in order when they turned up. After they left, the usual poor conditions were reimposed (as I understand it).

“While she was sitting there sobbing, my friend was asking why she had to suffer this. She was pleading with me, begging for me to tell her why she has to suffer so badly. She didn’t ask for it, and if this is what she has to look forward to – for the rest of her life – it won’t be worth living, she said. She’s probably still in tears as I type this.

“I didn’t have an answer for her. How could I? I’m just as powerless as she is. The truth is, her condition was caused by ‘light touch’ health and safety enforcement on the part of the last government, and it seems her meagre benefits are now in danger due to the callous inhumanity of the current administration.

“She’d work if she possibly could but she can’t. Her condition is not her fault – ultimately the fault rests with decision-makers in Westminster. Will anyone in Parliament accept responsibility for her situation?

“Somehow I doubt it.”

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Why the Kate Fitzgerald furore has failed those she most wanted to help

Workplace bullies in both Ireland and the UK must be celebrating wildly in the wake of the Kate Fitzgerald affair.

For those who aren’t aware, Miss Fitzgerald was the author of Employers failing people with mental health issues, a piece that was published anonymously in the Irish Times on September 9 last year (the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day). The piece detailed some of the author’s history of depression and spoke of an attempt to take her own life, followed by voluntary hospitalisation.

It then discussed the problems she encountered when she returned to work. After stating that she loved her job, and had checked out of hospital against medical advice after being unable to get a firm answer about when she would be able to leave, she wrote: “I did not… expect that I would be met with casual hostility, with passive-aggressive references to my mental incapacity for my profession, and my apparently  perceived ‘plan’ to leave the company entirely in the lurch.”

She wrote: “My manager… met the story of my misery with confusion and the suggestion that I could not be trusted with seniority. I was accused of planning my absence. Every question seemed posed with the hope that it might bolster a preconceived notion… Much of what my employer has done and said since my absence has been illegal. And I do not think for a minute that what my employer did was an isolated incident.”

References to her mental incapacity, accusations of planning to leave the company in the lurch, suggestions that she could not be trusted with seniority, questions designed to prove preconceived notions about her – these are clear signs of workplace bullying. But the article was about the way relationships with colleagues can change after they become aware that a person has a mental health problem like depression, or has tried to self-harm. The aim was clearly not to accuse businesses but to advise sufferers. Towards this end, the paper published helplines for readers who were in a similar situation.

Nobody at the paper knew that, by the time the article was published, its author Kate Fitzgerald had already taken her own life. She was 25.

Her father Tom rang the newspaper the day after publication, to say he thought that the author was his daughter and that she had taken her own life between its having been submitted and published, and the paper ran a moving article revealing her identity in late November – thereby opening a can of very nasty worms.

As soon as the identity of the article’s author became known, it became possible to work out the identity of her employers whose actions she had described as “illegal”. The minute that information was known, this allegation became legally actionable and the newspaper was in danger of a libel suit from her former employers.

The newspaper acted to rectify this issue within the bounds of the law and, as I understand it, under legal advice after Miss Fitzgerald’s employers registered their “unhappiness” with the article. Its actions included an apology to the company in which it made another mistake, stating “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”. In essence, the paper was calling Miss Fitzgerald a liar with no evidence to prove this – in the knowledge that it is impossible to libel the dead. Sadly, respect for the dead went out the window, too.

It is certainly true that the employers – I think everyone concerned knows it was a firm called The Communications Clinic – have been put in an extremely difficult position by this. There is no legal case to answer because the allegation cannot be put to the company – but many people know about it, nonetheless. Add to this the fact that another former employee, Karagh Fox, had taken legal action against the firm, alleging that she had been the victim of workplace bullying, and had settled out of court, and any right-minded observer might be forgiven for thinking something was not right there. To my knowledge, the firm itself has issued no public statement of any kind. It doesn’t have to.

The whole saga has shamefully overshadowed what Miss Fitzgerald was trying to do, and I fear that – for many – the point she was trying to make has been lost. The affair has paradoxically proven to be both a distraction from, and proof of, what Miss Fitzgerald was trying to highlight: that working people with depression need support from their colleagues, not intimidation.

And, believe me, people who are suffering at work, not through a lack of professionalism on their part but a lack of understanding from senior members of staff, will feel intimidated by what has happened here.

What have they learned from this? If they blow the whistle, they won’t be believed. Their employers will use the law to gag anyone who suggests they have a case. Even after they die, they won’t get to prove their case.

This is what this story shows. Bullying in the workplace will continue because there is no way to show up these people for what they are. Trust me; I’ve been through it.

There are three approaches to solving workplace bullying issues: by informal resolution at the workplace; through a formal complaints procedure, again at the workplace; or by external procedures such as legal action.

The first time I was involved in workplace bullying was the manager of a company where I was a senior officer. He had ruled that any complaints about any member of staff must be made through him, so the system was corrupt. What do you think he would have done if the complaint was about him? I stuck it out for a year and then quit – and the business suffered as a result.

This is exactly what Miss Fitzgerald warned against (although her references to suicide took the issue to a further extreme than my own experience): “Every day a company loses a valuable employee… At a time when small, medium and large companies rely on dedicated staff for the vision and drive to pull them through challenging times, these are not losses we can risk taking on the chin.”

The second time was in a different firm where a more senior person was bullying me, but I had recourse to a formal complaints procedure and invoked it. I spoke to the manager, who agreed to separate us – but the bully was never told why the changes were taking place as they were too useful for the company to lose. In essence, the hassle was taken away from me but the culprit was never punished.

And here, with the Fitzgerald case and that of Karagh Fox, we see how the law is used in such cases – and out-of-court settlement on one hand, and the implied threat of legal action on the other.

Is it any wonder that workplace bullying is on the rise?

It’s time for company executives to take a hard look at themselves and the people who work for them. Everyone they employ is a valuable resource otherwise, in this straitened times, they wouldn’t be there. So, if they fall into difficulties, why not try a little understanding?

As Miss Fitzgerald herself said: “It cannot be managed without the help and encouragement of those I work for.”

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