By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
Update: At its 8 PM virtual meeting on Twitter and Facebook WOWpetition named comedienne Franchesca Martinez as their spokesperson. Franchesca, an outspoken and nationally known entertainer has already made plain to everyone across the country where she stands on the issue of the government's War on Welfare.
18 Dec 2012. A poignant conversation took me by surprise late last night. It was one of those mind focusing moments of unexpected intimacy with a stranger and his unremitting grief. The stranger lost his dear wife two years ago to long term illness. She was only 44.
Poignant under any circumstances, it was made the worse by an event become all too common place in today’s “United” Kingdom. ATOS -- a contractor used by both the current Conservative and the preceding Labour governments -- had found the stranger’s wife “fit for work” just 2 months prior to her death.
All too common
ATOS has done the same to many women and men who previously had been considered too disabled or ill to work. The grim statistics-- and stories-- are easy to find. Advocacy organizations keep and publish them. Both BBC’s Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast exposes of ATOS. I’ve heard many anecdotes from strangers. But I also know -- and seen the paperwork-- concerning people close to me.
Although the stranger’s experience took place in 2010, the current Conservative government takes it all to a new level. Its “Welfare Reform” coerces the disabled to work -- without proper medical exam to determine what they can do within the limits of their disability without exacerbating it. It coerces them to work without proper determination of what resources, support (including carer) or accommodations the disabled need in order to do the job within the limits of the disability. It coerces them to work without assessment as to their suitability to the task or the working environment. The government coerces the disabled with substantial sanctions to their weekly benefits if they fail to cooperate with work placement activities, including placement into unpaid manual labour.
The government likes to characterize their procedure as a medical exam. In fact it is a computer checklist with pre-determined standards. Those who complete the check list may have degrees and experience but they have no discretion. They examine no records. They may not consider the recommendations of treating physicians. To call it a medical exam is like calling one who microwaves MacDonalds’ hamburgers a chef. The standards are such that the ability to sit upright for a brief period is considered sufficient to require finding someone “fit for work.”
By contrast, US Social Security tries to determine what someone can and cannot safely do under what circumstances with what kinds of support or accommodation. They make the determination based on medical records, recommendations of treating physicians and independent medical examination.
Unrealistic and demeaning
Welfare Reform pushes the disabled into a job market where scores of persons not diagnosed as disabled-- including many young college graduates and persons with solid track records of previous employment-- compete unsuccessfully for the scarce job vacancies. It does this without calculation of the reasonable probability of success either at the job or at building what is often a temporary placement into permanent work. Indeed, the current government declares such considerations irrelevant. What’s important, according to the current government, is that the “work shy” be “helped” to see work as the thing to do.
Welfare Reform comes wrapped in demeaning rhetoric. It isn’t just the frothing-at-the-mouth “know nothing” who is “not prejudiced, but ...” who uses terms like “Scrounger,” “work shy” or “blinds drawn” or the tabloid press. Government Ministers regularly use them, including no less than the Chancellor. Neither Welfare Reform, its proponents, the Department of Work and Pensions or Ministers exhibit any appreciation for the distress they cause or its real life consequences to health & indeed life.
Most of us realize the income earning sector is at least temporarily unable to support all the vast array of public expenditures it once supported, including maybe not the same kind of support it once gave those at least temporarily unable to contribute to earnings. We don’t need ideologues to tell us that. In fact, many of us believe the situation considerably worse than some would have us believe. The British economy shows no tangible signs of healing regardless of government and "market expert" pronouncements. Indeed, it seems clear economies from California to Leningrad to China and on to Japan are not willing or able to offer anything approaching full time work at anything approaching living wage for anything like the available work force who depend on work to provide for themselves and their families.
Fighting back against the War on Welfare
But that makes it more important, not less important, we treat each other with dignity and provide what we can provide. It is not an excuse to sweep away the benefits the greatest generation fought World War II believing they were securing for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. That is a promise we cannot afford ever to break.
It is not an excuse for a trumped up process that pretends to assess medical condition when it does not in fact do anything of the sort.
It is certainly not an excuse for the demeaning, hateful and irresponsible Ministerial rhetoric.
This “War on Welfare” is broader than the government and its Ministers. It is broader than Party. But it is no less excusable because it may be transiently more popular than not.
On Tuesday the 18th of December the House of Commons began to examine the impact of these procedures on the disabled, their families and carers. Also on Twitter on Tuesday the 18th at 8 PM GMT a confederation known to Twitter as “WOW Petition” will discuss a nationwide fight back against the “War on Welfare.” A creature of the information and internet age, WOW Petition and related information are accessed through the Net.
There are many organizations that stand up for the disabled, but these efforts supplement and support each other. They do not compete with or detract from WOW petition. It is my sincere hope Britain will respond to WOW petition with a vigor and determination born out of the decent society Britain still is in its soul.