Savi Hensman

Slashing welfare benefits: scolding and false sympathy

By Savi Hensman
January 30, 2012

Successive UK governments, and their media allies, have been vigorous in smearing benefit claimants. To achieve this, politicians and their propagandists have played on popular stereotypes, stoking up prejudice against ‘scroungers’ while lavishly rewarding members of their own class at taxpayers’ expense.

But when it comes to justifying benefit cuts to certain types of claimants, hardline rhetoric is unlikely to work. For example, many members of the public know, or can identify with, hard-up widows and cancer patients. If such people were denounced as spongers, this might backfire. Indeed more people might start asking awkward questions about the real agenda about government cuts with hidden costs attached, including the hotly-debated Welfare Reform Bill.

So when changes are proposed to, say, bereavement benefit or to cancer patients’ right to employment and support allowance (ESA), this is presented as an expression of the government’s sympathetic concern. Sometimes a sweetener is offered, in the hope that the sting in the tail will meet with less opposition.

At present, for instance, any cancer patient who is not desperately ill and wants to undertake paid work can do so, if he or she can get a job. There is a clear incentive– average take-home pay for a full-time worker is almost four times as much as even the highest rate of ESA.

However if patients feel they are too ill to work, some have to go through the notoriously inaccurate assessment process run by Atos, and be required to undertake work-related activities or even be classified as well enough to work. A recent Citizens Advice study of 37 assessments found that only 30 per cent were wholly, or almost entirely, correct.

But cancer patients who are expected to die within six months, or are receiving, or recovering from, non-oral chemotherapy, can get ESA without this ordeal. “While having chemotherapy, it is important to get plenty of rest. Do not carry out tasks or activities that you do not feel up to,” the NHS website advises. Side-effects can range from nausea and vomiting or diarrheoa to being prone to life-threatening infections.

Drawing on the advice of medical experts, Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity, pointed out that patients receiving certain kinds of oral chemotherapy, radiotherapy or a combination could be just as badly affected, and should not have to go through a stressful assessment process to get the help they need.

The government document Work Capability Assessment: An informal consultation on accounting for the effects of cancer treatments is supposedly at attempt to improve the system on the basis of Macmillan’s research. And it does propose that most patients receiving oral chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy should be fast-tracked through the assessment process. But this would not be automatic – and patients undergoing non-oral chemotherapy would be stripped of their current right to get unconditional help if they ask for it.

“Given the evidence that work is generally good for an individual’s health and well-being, we recognise that there may also be therapeutic and psychological benefits experienced as a result of working. We propose therefore to allow individuals undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment the option to remain in or return to work wherever possible and indeed we wish to support them to do so,” the document declares, absurdly. Since when has the state had the power to forbid cancer patients from working? Indeed, on page 14, the document admits that some cancer patients can and do work.

What is being proposed, under the guise of ‘support’, is that chemotherapy as well as radiotherapy patients who are too ill to hold down a job should be subjected to the threat of losing their benefits, until the final months of their lives. This is not just about material loss but also the emotional impact of being disbelieved at such a time.

In any case, under planned welfare reforms, numerous people who are too sick to work but whose spouse or civil partner has a job will lose their ESA after a year, though poverty is already rife among cancer patients and their families. A House of Lords amendment exempted cancer patients, but the government has pledged to fight this.

But we are supposed to believe that such measures show that the government really cares. To the charge of false witness (Deuteronomy 5.20, Mark 10.19) against some claimants, that of hiding injustice against others behind a shiny veneer (Jeremiah 5.26-28) could rightfully be added.

* Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) consultations can be found on, including consultations on Work Capability Assessment: accounting for the effects of cancer treatment – informal consultation (

* Ekklesia has received a detailed dossier of experiences of WCA from disabled and sick people, and is briefing peers and MPs about the issues of assessment and why change is needed.


© Savi Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and works in the care and equalities sector. She is a regular commentator and writer on politics, religion and social policy.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.