Attacks on benefits, impoverishing the poor

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This month Vince Cable and the government have magnanimously announced an increase in the minimum wage by 3%, increasing it by 19p an hour more, bringing the minimum hourly rate to £6.31p a week. What generosity! The ‘working poor’ can do a lot with that, but what’s that you say? It is an above inflation increase! And it’s only fair that our poorer citizens are treated more generously. Ah well, we’re sure we’ll all rest in our beds easier with that knowledge and our 19p an hour tucked safely into our pockets. Likewise, the bourgeoisie’s largesse has extended to the NHS, awarding nurses a generous 1% in line with inflation, well it’s only right and fair, as our masters repeat ad infinitum.

Yet the deadly dance goes on. The Spending Review, now in the second year of its implementation here in Britain, is hitting the working class like a pole-axe. The capitalists know that it is only by attacking our wages and cutting our benefits that it can exert some control over its own economic crisis. Speaking in January this year Chancellor George Osborne promised that the attacks will continue: “A further £25 billion spending cuts, much of it from the welfare budget, will be needed after the next election”. He also said that more austerity lay ahead as “the job was not even half done”. A further £25 billion is the saving target after the election. The main recipients for these cuts are perhaps the weakest sectors of the working class - the young and the disabled. As we reported in WR 364 the under 25’s have been viciously targeted with their benefits being stopped and the imposition of the ‘bedroom tax’ pushing them into homelessness.

Also targeted are the resources available to local authorities: the worse off authorities have been singled out because they have a bigger proportion of claimants, according to a BBC online news report. The indices used to calculate ‘deprivation’ are unemployment, health and social housing, with funding affecting those areas with the greater need for benefits and social housing. The most deprived areas - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow - are the areas which are hit the hardest by the cuts. “Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, it says the percentage cut in spending will be 10 times greater in the most deprived areas than those least deprived” (source -BBC -30/01/14 ).

Another vicious aspect of the Spending Review cuts is the requirement that the long term unemployed and the disabled have to take compulsory medical examinations in order to qualify and stay on the new benefits. To this end the government has enlisted a French consultancy firm, ATOS, to carry out the mickey mouse examinations. The contract between the DWP and ATOS, which has existed for over two years now, allows this cowboy ‘health agency’ to conduct medical assessments for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Industrial Injuries Disability Benefit (IIDB). These are all the areas which the government has vowed to cut drastically.

If you are unlucky enough to be ‘examined’ and declared ‘fit for work’, it can take months to register an appeal, a period where you receive no benefits (just a referral to a food bank). There have been a number of recorded suicides as the result of benefit sanctions. Shaun Pilkington and the registered blind man Tim Salter both committed suicide as a result of benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax. Another important aspect of the benefit sanction is the withdrawal of housing benefit which often plunges claimants into debt.....

The figures released today are truly shocking:

  • In the last two and a half years, the number of unemployed people sanctioned have averaged 64,307 a month, compared with 27,108 a month between 2000 and 2010, a 137% increase.

  • ESA sanctions issued to disabled people have increased by 156% in the last year.

  • It is also a concern to PCS that the sanctions are lasting longer and at higher rates and are completely disproportionate to the so-called offense” (Public and Commercial Services Union, January 28th 2014, quoted in Aurora, broadsheet of the Internationalist Communist Tendency).

The manner in which ATOS conducts its examinations is highly suspect. ATOS uses a ‘tick box’ system to make an assessment where claimants have to register certain points to be eligible for benefits. This has led Geoff Douglas (a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians), who has been assessing people for their eligibility for disability benefits for more than ten years, to send an e-mail to ATOS management to complain that the task of assessors was “becoming more and more complex and ever more futile, as we bend over backwards to satisfy the demands of a government that wants and needs cuts to the welfare budget.”

Another doctor, Margaret McCarthy, writing in the British Medical Journal, described the ‘training programme’ of a doctor, Steve Bicks, who went undercover for the Channel 4 Dispatches programme and uncovered the ‘medical’ criteria that ATOS uses to assess claimants. The doctor who trained Bicks explained the distinctions: oral chemotherapy or hormone therapy, say for prostate cancer, don’t get any points, whereas intravenous chemo does. Disabled claimants were assessed as though they were using a ‘hypothetical wheelchair’. Having one hand or one leg is not enough to generate points. To achieve enough points she maintained was “almost unachievable”. Dr McCarthy then went on to declare “ATOS has been allowed to take over the assessment of the most vulnerable people in society without proper scrutiny” (BMJ 8th August 2014). Bravo doctors! Expose the false medical criteria for such assessment, show it up for what it is: a bare faced trick to cut benefits.

Also, DWP staff are all struggling to keep up with imposed government targets, although the existence of such targets are vehemently denied by the DWP.

So desperate are the assessors of ATOS that even a trivial thing like being a few minutes late can throw you off benefits. Instances have been recorded of people attending funerals of loved ones being classified as ineligible for work, therefore you’re off benefits! Not conducting a job search on Christmas Day can count against you: it’s recorded, so do it again and you’re off benefits!

This government is distinguishing itself in the scale and sheer nastiness of its attacks on the most vulnerable sectors of the working class, while justifying it all with an equally nasty ideological campaign against the shirkers and scroungers who suck the blood of ‘ordinary hard working people’. But let’s not have any illusion that this is all due to the fact the present governing team is made up of posh Bullingdon Club bully boys. In squeezing the working class for everything they’ve got, they are only doing what any bourgeois government, right wing or left wing, is compelled to do by the impersonal laws of a capitalist accumulation process in deep and historical crisis.

Melmoth, 15.3.14