Mistreating disabled claimants and child abuse: opening minds and hearts

By Savi Hensman
April 16, 2016

Television can increase understanding of other people’s experiences or indeed one’s own, even if such knowledge may be uncomfortable. Two UK documentaries shown one after the other, then available online, raise important issues for people of faith and others committed to a better world.

The Great Benefits Row’ was a half-hour programme in Channel 4’s Dispatches strand. ‘Abused: The Untold Story’, on BBC 1, was longer but also gripping.

In different ways, both highlighted how institutions can inflict great cruelty – but also how ordinary people may be complicit. It is all too easy to be in denial that anything is seriously wrong or go in for victim-blaming. This makes it easier to avoid dealing with suffering and confronting injustice.

The Dispatches documentary, presented by Ade Adepitan, looked at the debate over the Personal Independence Payment which has been replacing Disability Living Allowance.

There was disturbing undercover footage, drawing attention to an assessment process in which disabled people may be treated with contempt and denied much-needed support. Neither private contractor Capita nor the Department for Work and Pensions come out of this with much credit.

An individual, formerly held up as a model assessor, has apparently been sacked after being caught on camera acting in an unprofessional way. But wider questions about a system that promotes bad practice, as well as using unacceptably crude measures of capability, remain unaddressed.

There was not enough time to go into the background in depth. But the government’s drive to make out that large numbers of people on benefits are not entitled to these is an important aspect. And many people have fallen for the notion that their disabled neighbours are ‘scroungers’ and joined in scapegoating.

The slightly later programme however, if sometimes harrowing, showed the shift in attitudes which could occur when what was largely hidden came to light. It examined how Jimmy Savile’s offences gradually came to light and the wider effect of encouraging survivors of sexual abuse by other adults too to come forward.

The disbelief, hatred and contempt of some members of the public towards the first few victims who told the police of what Savile had done to them was replaced by widespread horror. The long-term damage to individuals and families, and distress sometimes experienced when going through the court system, were powerfully depicted, as well as the determination of those who refused to be silenced.

The failure of the BBC itself and NHS institutions (despite the many other admirable things they do) to protect those at risk was a reminder of how often organisations side with the powerful. Yet in ordinary communities and families too, violence goes on.

Misconceptions about people on benefits, naivety about how states treat minorities and denial around sexual abuse by ‘respectable’ people are rife in churches, as in wider society. It is to be hoped that these programmes continue to be widely viewed while still available online.

There is also perhaps a need to create more spaces where those experiencing stark injustice can be listened to and receive solidarity, and where those who have harmed others (or let this happen) are challenged to act differently.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is  author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

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.