Workhouse, welfare and WCA: Dickens’ day and now

By Savi Hensman
November 18, 2012

After a walk through “the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls”, Charles Dickens concluded that “We have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper.”

2012 has marked the bicentenary of the birth of this journalist and novelist, one of several writers who focused public attention on the injustices of the Poor Law that blighted the lives of so many sick, disabled, elderly or unemployed people in Victorian times. Stories such as Oliver Twist encouraged readers to look with compassion on those subjected to hardship and humiliation in nineteenth-century Britain.

Since then, much has changed. A welfare system has been created that supposedly protects those who cannot earn enough to meet their basic needs or who require healthcare. Those in employment generally pay a large part of their income in National Insurance and other taxes, largely for that purpose. Most – Christians, people of other faiths, agnostics and atheists – would probably agree that sick and disabled people should be treated humanely.

But The People's Review of the Work Capability Assessment, published by We Are Spartacus in November 2012, exposes the brutal reality behind our society’s present-day veneer of civilisation. Under the flimsiest pretexts, people are being declared fit for work and stripped of the benefits by “healthcare professionals” (HCPs) employed by private firm Atos and working under the guidance of the Department for Work and Pensions.

An advisor wrote of:

a young man with long term schizophrenia who experienced hallucinations so real that he would call the Police in the early hours in the very real belief that his living room and around the outside of his house was ‘littered with dead bodies’... After the HCP said there was nothing wrong with him... he started to think his clinician’s were conspiring to poison him and as a result of his paranoia, he promptly stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication; his condition got much worse.

Another described a client who:

has had brain damage since a massive haemorrhage/coma at the age of 22. This has left him with a short term memory of 20 minutes. He doesn’t remember me, or my voice, and keeps extensive diaries of daily events so he can record what he has to do. He has been found capable of work three times, and on one occasion he lost his home, because he couldn’t remember what he had to do to appeal

Even the dying are not spared:

I have a brain tumour and was left disabled because I had the left side of my cerebellum amputated, because of this my balance and co-ordination to my left side is shot coupled with the fact that all the cancer could not be removed I am also terminally ill... I was told I should be working in a set period of time, funny as it was the same as my lifespan

Some have died as a result of the stress, leaving bereaved relatives and friends to try to cope with a loss that could have been avoided, and plagued by memories of their loved ones’ final misery.

It is to be hoped that reports such as this, and other filmed and written accounts and works of imagination, will help to reawaken the public’s conscience.

* The People's Review of the WCA:

* More on Spartacus:

* 'Official policy on disability work tests is to deny reality', Simon Barrow:

* Click here to support the WCA review 'thunderclap': (Thunderclap FAQ:

* Follow the campaign on Twitter through the hashtag #realWCA


© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the care and equalities sector.

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.