Government, Concentrix and disabled people

By Bernadette Meaden
September 14, 2016

Is there an institutional prejudice within Westminster and Whitehall against disabled people, a profound lack of respect and empathy which means that disabled people are allowed to endure hardship and suffering which would not be countenanced for non-disabled citizens? Sadly, events make this question unavoidable.

Last year, welfare contractor Concentrix was awarded a government contract to work on tax credits. Today (14 September 2016) it was announced  that, following well-publicised problems, the firm would not have its contract renewed. HMRC is drafting in 150 of its own employees to help clear up problems for claimants. And Frank Field has dramatically declared, “Concentrix’s reign of terror is drawing to a close. Again the Government has acted decisively in protecting vulnerable Britain.”

But what about disabled people, who, in their dealings with the benefits system have lived in fear for years now? Where is the decisive action to protect them? Why does HMRC appear to be more compassionate towards tax credit claimants than the DWP is towards disabled claimants?

The failings of Concentrix undoubtedly caused hardship for many people who suddenly and wrongly lost a large portion of their income, and the government should be commended for acting. But compare this with the experience of disabled people being assessed for benefits – it has been an absolute catalogue of disaster, resulting not just in hardship but in loss of life. Yet this has been allowed to continue for years, with no government action, and seemingly no genuine concern on the part of those who could stop it.

We know that these assessments cost the government more money than they save.They have long been associated with such dire consequences that the only reasonable thing to do is to stop them – but on and on they go, wreaking havoc in the lives of disabled people.

As far back as 2012 a survey of GPs found that "Six per cent of doctors have experienced a patient who has attempted – or committed – suicide as a result of “undergoing, or fear of undergoing” the Government's fitness to work test." GPs called for the test to be abolished. Still they continued.

We know that thousands of people died shortly after being found ‘fit for work’ by one of these tests.Still they continued.

We know that academic research found that work capability assessments were associated with "an extra 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems, and the prescribing of a further 725,000 anti-depressants." Still they continued.

These assessments have rolled on like a juggernaut, crushing people who need support, people who Frank Field would no doubt consider part of ‘vulnerable Britain’. But no action was taken to protect them.

And it’s not just work assessments. In 2014 the Commons Public Accounts Committee reported "Implementation of Personal Independence Payments nothing short of fiasco". And yet still it rolls on, with hundreds of people every week losing their independence. Despite protests and campaigning by disabled people, nothing changes. One can only wonder what level of hardship and suffering disabled people would have to go through before the government finds it unacceptable.

We have a new Prime Minister, who has shown a willingness to do things differently than her predecessor. She could, if she wished, get a grip on the situation and end the farce of assessments which are deeply discredited. If not, it would suggest that the suffering of disabled people is considered less politically significant, and in some way acceptable.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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