Social security was originally designed to ensure that everyone was protected from the worst ravages of unfettered capitalism. To say that we have regressed as a society since then is an understatement.
‘Behavioural economics’ are currently embedded within our current welfare system. This is a technocratic solution to essentially politically created problems. It addresses social problems by simply shifting the blame and responsibility from state to individual. This has led to an increasingly punitive social security system, aimed at pushing people into employment, regardless of whether or not they are able to work. ‘Nudge’ is increasingly being used by an authoritarian Conservative government to ensure citizens behaviours are aligned with neoliberal ideology and policy outcomes.
People who are chronically ill are suffering terribly because of the government’s anti-welfare ideolology. Yet most of us have paid tax and National Insurance to ensure that we have access to social security if or when we need it, only to find that the hostile environment created by by the government has made claiming support an ordeal.
Back in 2013, I wrote about the terrible impact of stressful, continuous work capability assessments on disabled people, particularly those with chronic illness. It’s long been understood that stress exacerbates the symptoms of illness.
Many people have described a “revolving door” process of endless assessment, ceased ESA claim, (based on an outcome of almost invariably being wrongly “assessed” as fit for work), appeal, successful appeal outcome, benefit reinstated, only to find just three or four months later that another assessment is required.
The uncertainty and loss of even the most basic financial security to meet the bare necessities to survive that this process creates, leading to constant fear and anxiety, is having a damaging, negative impact on the health and wellbeing of so many. It’s appalling that in a first world so-called liberal democracy, sick and disabled people are being punished for being ill and disabled by a system that was originally intended to support them in meeting their most basic living costs.
Five years on, nothing has changed. People are still dying because of a system that is fundamentally flawed and not fit for purpose. The government are not listening to us.
I write all too regularly about disabled citizens who have been treated brutally because of Conservative policies, many who have died as a consequence of a system that is intentionally designed to punish people for their need.
I’m saddened to report that disabled woman has died from a heart attack after she was repeatedly refused vital financial support following disability assessments carried out by a private benefits firm, Atos, over a five year period.
Sandra Burns, who lived in Luton, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs at her home on 16 April. She was surrounded by letters from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and overdue utility bills, having suffered what is believed to be a massive heart attack.
Sandra’s brother, Ian, told Luton Today: “She was found dead at the foot of her stairs, apparently of a massive heart attack.
“She was surrounded by letters informing her that the gas, electricity, water, telephone and television were all in danger of being cut off.”
“This debt and anxiety lay all around her on the floor”.
Ian also said that the stress of the process had a degenerative impact on Sandra. He says that the work assessments were “punitive” and that they “ignored the comments of her GP”.
“These appeals would take six to eight months. Every single time, she won the appeal and got a backdated payment. But in that period, she would get into debt and lose her credit rating.
“And then she’d get back on an even keel until the next year, when the same thing would happen,” he added.
Sandra, who was 57, had worked in retail for 30 years before severe back pain caused by five fused vertebrae in her spine forced her to give up working. She had failed a number of work capability assessments over a five year period but had successfully challenged each decision at appeal.
The disability assessments were carried out at the time by Atos, on behalf of the DWP, who withdrew from a contract to carry out assessments for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) following widespread failures and mounting criticism.
Each time she failed an assessment, Sandra found herself looking at a growing mountain of debts while she fought to have the harsh decisions overturned at appeal.
In a letter sent to the DWP before her death, Sandra wrote: “I am old school and would still be working if I could do it. Do you think I would be silly enough to do this? I have always worked.”
“Why do they think it’s ok to treat me like this? It’s not acceptable”.
Her Brother Ian said the difficulties of living with a chronic health condition, coupled with having to repeatedly fight for the benefits she desperately needed, caused her health to deteriorate.
He says that Atos “based their assessment on the fact she could walk the five or six steps of the stairwell to the interview room”.
“She could walk small distances and couldn’t stand for long”, he said.
“Every time ATOS assessed her, they judged her fit for work.”
“She described how one man said, ‘I’ve been watching you walk from the waiting room and as far as I’m concerned, you’re fit for work’.”
Ian Burns, who lives in Denmark, said his sister had become reclusive during the last year of her life, adding that he had last spoke to her on 3 April.
Having not heard from his sister for some time, Ian asked a friend and neighbour to check up on her.
He said: “They knocked on the door and went around the back. Through the kitchen window, they could see piles of dishes.
“The police came quarter of an hour later. They got through the back door and found her at the bottom of the stairs.”
Ian came to his sister’s home the following day. “I came the next day … all around the sofa was a pile of letters and debts.
“It was terrible heartbreak and I just feel it could have all been avoided… everyone is treated as cheats or maybe the DWP have an agenda.
“Whatever it is, it’s putting people like Sandra under incredible amounts of stress.”
A DWP spokesman, offering the usual discordant platitudes, said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Burns’ family. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the support they’re entitled to.
“Assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who look at how someone’s disability or health condition impacts them on a day-to-day basis.”
Disabled people protesting about the punitive disability assessments in Parliament
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article and need support, please contact the Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK).
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