In 1999 New Labour, massively influenced by notorious right-winger, Frank Field, announced proposals to change the rules for those claiming Invalidity Benefit, after being signed off work by their doctor. Strict tests and interviews were introduced and served only to damage claimants’ health further.
At the time I spoke to a community advice worker, Gerry Boyle, who represented people who felt they had wrongly been denied the benefit. He told me about 2 cases when patients had been forced by the DSS doctor to bend over, exacerbating their spinal injuries in the process.
Blair was desperate to implement Field’s proposals and rags like the Sun had a field day (pardon the pun). The Invalidity Benefit was open to widespread abuse said some sections of the press, "scroungers and malingerers" was the tag given to claimants. Despite a then massive majority, 65 back-bench Labour MP’s rebelled and the plans were shelved.
On 1st February 2004, Blair once again picked up the Incapacity Benefit (as it is now known) blew 5 years’ dust off the top and announced that as part of his Welfare Reforms, his government was going to remove 1 million from the benefit. 2.7 million people in Britain claim Incapacity Benefit, but "The Pathways To Work" scheme is now to "assist" at least 1 million of the IB claimants back into work.
"We must tackle the dependency culture", says Works and Pensions Secretary, John Hutton. All the national daily papers have so far run with this line, most in their commentary pieces and some with their editorials. It is a charter to harass and undermine the genuinely sick and disabled who are unfit for work.
The current tests for work assessments include questions like, "Can you peel a potato?" and "Can you answer the phone?" Of course, most people, even some severely disabled people could carry out these particular tasks. The real question should be – "can you do these easily and repeatedly?" The same with climbing stairs. Claimants are often asked, "Can you climb a set of 12 stairs?" Of course, if a bloody great lion wandered into the living room while you were sitting watching the Weakest Link, in spite of your heart problems and arthritis, you might well find some surge of super strength surging through your limbs and dive head first out the nearest window, would you not?
Recently Socialist Appeal reported that Glasgow was the "sick man of Europe" with more heart attacks here than anywhere else. Any reasonable move to improve Glasgow residents’ health and well-being would be welcome. It goes without saying. When a person visits his/her doctor and the doctor issues a sick note, that doctor is making a professional judgement based on his knowledge of illness and of that patient and is advising him/her to refrain from work for a certain period of time. Is there not something wrong with a system that then asks that patient to attend another doctor (employed by a government department), whose primary aim seems to be to reduce the numbers claiming benefit?
The reforms propose that Incapacity Benefit is replaced with 2 new benefits. At first, people would receive an allowance called Rehabilitation and Sickness Allowance. This would be paid at a rate of £55 per week and those in receipt would undergo a medical test conducted by the government medical doctor within 12 weeks of their claim. The aim would be to get these people back to work as quickly as possible.
The other benefit, Disability and Sickness Allowance will be much more difficult to claim and one would need to be literally at death’s door to qualify. It will pay £55 per week too. The propaganda says the differences between the two benefits are that the first RSA would be given to those whose illness is manageable. That means if you are signed off with stress and you are prescribed some form of stress management drugs or treatment, you would no longer qualify for the benefit. It is these claimants that the government have set their sights on.
Among the 2.7 million claims, over 1 million are off with depression, anxiety or mental health disorders, many of them brought about by the pressures of work or working conditions in the first place.
The reforms will see a clerk, unqualified in medicine, ensconced in the doctor’s surgery. New patients, after receiving their sick notes, will have to go and see the clerk, who will decide which jobs the patient could do and what jobs are available. Failure to comply with the clerk, make yourself available for interviews and so on, will see your benefit reduced by £22 per week. If it were not so serious it would be laughable. Doctors who don’t issue sick lines will qualify for a financial bonus. Councils who reduce the levels of claimants in their districts will receive incentives. It is truly incredible.
Yet with a 3-figure majority in 1999, Blair withdrew similar proposals when 65 Labour MPs voted against the reforms. Now Blair commands only a 67 majority. Hutton has written to the MPs whose constituencies fall within the top 100 for claiming Incapacity Benefit (almost exclusively Labour) encouraging them to vote for the proposal, but it seems likely that there will again be a back-bench revolt.
Health, of course, is not just the absence of illness – it is a positive sense of well-being. Surely no one would disagree with the claim that someone’s recovery from illness is intimately related to their psychological condition as well as their physical. People who are emotionally secure and reassured will obviously recover more easily than those who are frightened or unhappy or stressed. And this is the nub of the matter. Of the 1 million sick that are mentally ill, the proposals clearly do not recognise how debilitating mental health problems can be.
We also now have a massive drugs problem which was absent 25 years ago. These people live their lives in such a shambolic way, always bordering on criminality and in regularly collisions with the authorities in some form or another that it may be well near impossible for them to hold down a steady job. 27 million prescriptions are dished out every year in Britain for tranquillisers and anti-depressants. The number of children on anti-depressants has more than doubled since 1995 from just over 13,000 to just over 27,000. Are we to believe that all these people are swinging the lead?
The Scottish Association on Mental Health have made their concerns known and they are not alone in their worries over the reforms. Marjory Wallace, spokesperson for the mental health support group, SANE, said, "These proposals could disturb an often fragile balance, trigger relapse and worsen symptoms".