Coalition marks UN disability day with forced unpaid work for disabled people

By staff writers
4 Dec 2012

A scheme which could force disabled welfare claimants to work without pay and lose benefits has been introduced by the Westminster government on the UN's International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Angry critics say that the timing of the enforced work-for-benefits move shows how "crass, out of touch and uncaring" the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is in its attitude towards disabled, sick and vulnerable people - despite caring rhetoric and attempts to cash-in politically on the recent Paralympic Games.

Thousands of claimants with severe conditions now face the Department for Work and Pensions putting them into the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) for those required to be back in employment, on the basis of what a mass of evidence suggests are flawed assessments involving no physical examination.

The government opposes 'real life tests', preferring artificial measurements that enable assessors to strip away as many benefits as possible to meet predetermined cuts targets, irrespective of the consequences for disabled and sick people and their families, say disability campaigners.

From 3 November 2012, private back-to-work companies and Jobcentre case managers are allowed to force more than 300,000 sick and disabled welfare claimants into unpaid work experience for an unspecified length of time.

If those in WRAG who have illnesses ranging from cancer and paralysis to mental health problems do not comply with instructions to work unpaid, they can be stripped of up to 70 per cent of their benefits and forced to live on £28.15 a week.

Ironically, the aim of the International Day of People with Disabilities, which takes place on 3 December each year, is to focus on removing barriers to creating an inclusive and accessible society.

The government claims its welfare changes are "encouraging people back to work", but charities, disability groups, civic and church organisations have described the pressure they are applying as a denial of basic rights and dignity.

Attempts are being made to mount challenges against the government's welfare changes at the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations under Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

According to the latest figures, between 1 June 2011 and 31 May 2012 there were 11,130 conditionality sanctions applied to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) WRAG claimants, reports the Guardian. The average length of such sanction is seven weeks.

"It isn’t immediately apparent from the DWP press release , but whilst mandatory work placements for non-disabled people are time limited, those for disabled people are indefinite," said Richard Exell of the Trades Union Congress.

Shadow employment minister Stephen Timms told the Guardian that the new policy of mandatory work placements was "a recipe for disaster".

At the same time as forcing incapacitated people into unpaid work, the government has been shutting Remploy factories, cutting the Access to Work budget, and failing to invest in support for meaningful, paid job opportunities for those who want to work, critics point out.

So far, only 35 disabled workers have found new jobs out of the 1,021 sacked from Remploy factories, despite ministerial promises.

The likelihood of a disabled person in the UK being unemployed is now twice that of a non-disabled person, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In addition, the government has abolished Equality Impact Assessments that require public authorities to take into account the consequences of their decisions on disabled people.

The closure of Independent Living Funds to new applicants from 2010 also hits disabled people particularly badly, and leaves the current recipients to cash-strapped and cuts-impoverished local authorities from 2015.

Meanwhile, a Demos study has found that some disabled people are already as much as £2,000 a year worse off as a result of welfare cuts, with the worst reductions yet to happen.

Laurence Clark, writing in the Independent, said yesterday: "Many disabled people, including myself, rely on the soon-to-be-scrapped Disability Living Allowance to pay for essential support (e.g. an accessible Motability car) without which we couldn’t work.

"Long-term unemployed disabled people may not have qualifications or work experience, partly as a result of the special education system, and will need to attend training, volunteering and peer mentoring schemes before they are in a position to get paid work."

Meanwhile, the We Are Spartacus network of disabled people has commissioned and produced its own seven page evaluation of the assessment tools being used to deny people benefits.

"The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment includes the experiences of more than 70 claimants who have been wrongly assessed, humiliated, badly treated and forced to go to tribunal to secure the benefits to which they are legally entitled," the group declares.

"The review also highlights press reports of some of the claimants who have died after being found fit for work or whose suicide has been linked, at least in part, to the stress of a process which is essentially abusive, demeaning and not fit for purpose. In the final section of the review, we examine what has been said about the WCA by the Government, MP’s, courts, professional bodies, medical organisations and individual medical professionals. This section includes full references, including replies to Freedom of Information requests, so readers can check the facts for themselves."

* People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment: http://wearespartacus.org.uk/wca-peoples-review/

* Hardest Hit, The Tipping Point report on cuts impacting disabled people: http://thehardesthit.wordpress.com/our-message/the-tipping-point/

* The politics behind the welfare myths, by Bernadette Meaden, Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17525

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