Toby Young and I, Daniel Blake

By Bernadette Meaden
October 25, 2016

Earlier this year Toby Young, the Conservative columnist who set up a Free School,  very gracefully conceded that he had been wrong to think it would be easy to run a school, and said he regretted criticising teachers.  He showed an admirable willingness to admit his mistake. I hope he will now do the same on the issue of disabled people and the Work Capability Assessment.

In his review of the Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake, Young is incredulous at the impression it gives of the current benefits system, and refuses to believe it can be anything like as bad as it is portrayed. He asks, "Would a middle-aged man who’s just had a massive heart attack really be declared ‘fit for work’ by the Department for Work and Pensions?" The fact that Mr Young can even ask this question betrays a woeful ignorance of the Work Capability Assessment system.

A simple Google search would reveal to Mr Young numerous stories of people just like Daniel Blake. People like Stephen Hill,  who, awaiting major heart surgery, was found fit to work and died 39 days later. Or Paul Turner 52, who was medically retired from his job after a heart attack but found fit for work by the DWP. He died of heart failure months later. And there are many, many more.

That Mr Young doesn't know this could be simple lack of awareness. But, far more seriously, he goes on to repeat a ‘fact’ that is provably untrue, and one which has done great damage, poisoning the public debate around disability benefits and causing great distress to many sick and disabled people. He states, "the whole polemical thrust of the film is misleading. We’re asked to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied. Forcing them to undergo a Work Capability Assessment is a needless humiliation from a sadistic Tory government. In fact, when the test was introduced in 2013 by the then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, roughly a million people decided to come off the Employment and Support Allowance rather than go through the assessment."

This appears to be a repetition of a claim made by the then Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, a claim for which he was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority. In May 2013 it was reported that, "Conservative chairman Grant Shapps has been rebuked by the UK's statistics watchdog for wrongly claiming that nearly one million people on incapacity benefit (IB) had dropped their claims rather than face medical checks.

"In fact, official figures showed that just 19,700 IB recipients withdrew their claims before facing work capability assessments as part of the transfer to the new employment and support allowance (ESA) between March 2011 and May 2012, said UK Statistics Authority chairman Andrew Dilnot."

Mr Young obviously read and committed to memory the false claim, but appears to have missed the correction and the rebuke. That is unfortunate.

He goes on to say that of the people who did undergo a Work Capability Assessment, "a further million were declared fit for work." If Mr. Young means that one million Incapacity Benefit claimants were reassessed and found fit for work, reducing the total claimant count by one million,  that is also incorrect. In 2010, when Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling decided to go ahead with the reassessment of Incapacity Benefit claimants, despite a warning from a coroner, there were 2,586,000 claimants. Latest figures from the DWP show that, after millions of assessments and reassessments, there are currently 2,460,000 claimants.

Mr.Young has shown that he is willing to admit when he gets things wrong. I hope he will admit that he got this wrong, as that one false statement he repeats has done much to create a negative and suspicious attitude towards sick and disabled benefit claimants, who are more likely than the general population to be living in poverty.

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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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