Today, pretty much as I type, the Government will release the first significant figures for the transfer of claimants from incapacity benefit to the new Employment Support Allowance (or ESA, via the feared and despised Atos WCA)
Finally, we will get to see how many people previously claiming Incapacity Benefit are being awarded the new benefit, how many are being awarded it for one year only, how many are told they are immediately fit for work and how many can look forward to the mythical “support” that doesn’t actually exist for those told they need it to find work.
But it will show lots of other things too.
We have a curious – and I would guess fairly unique - situation here with welfare policy. Sick and disabled people have found a voice on social media that often went unheard in the past. At this very moment in time, we, the public, have access to information that we have never had access to before.
With the introduction of the Data protection and Freedom of Information acts and their perfect marriage to the information superhighway, sick and disabled people can campaign online with immediate access to political information via Hansard, the Parliament.uk website and other sources.
They can share that information with a network of millions in seconds via Facebook, Twitter and email.
They can analyse endless, technical reports and data in hours, overnight if need be - by breaking it down for many people to do in chunks. Any government still hoping they can sneak information out, cook the books, distort results or mislead the public can only be totally unaware of the invention of computers and what actual human people use them for.
I know of at least 8 groups or analysts with hunches on what today’s figures will show, waiting to pounce as soon as the report is released and prove or disprove their theories. Almost all would be pretty much terminal for ESA as it exists. Did I mention these are very clever people indeed? The odds of all 8 hunches being wrong are negligible.
The truth is the game is up. Oh, the name might limp on – you know how politicians love to save face – but there are only two ways for ESA to go : It either has to improve drastically, beyond all recognition, in partnership with sick and disabled people or current protests will spill over into a terrible crisis for Britain.
Ask yourselves what it takes for people like me – an ordinary Mum and wife who happens to have a serious long term illness – to suddenly start writing here, trying desperately to warn you all that something terrible is happening. When 13 year old boys write to the Right Honourable Minister accusing them of killing their Dad; when vulnerable people feel they must do something as extreme as going on hunger strike, a policy is simply no longer sustainable. Oh, it might limp on for a while, but every time someone dies just days after being found “fit for work” by Atos, every new set of damning statistics, every announcement that “work providers” are actually not providing work gets more and more coverage and more and more embarrassing for politicians.
Today’s figures should show that Atos are not close to conducting the number of assessments the DWP predicted. Files are backed up for months, Atos have been trying to recruit more assessors – and failing – for months. Assessments either a) take longer than the DWP insist on or b) cannot be accurate. If today’s figures don’t show that Atos are way behind schedule, then the books have been cooked. This is not debatable or theoretical. Despite Iain Duncan-Smith’s endless claims that everyone will face an assessment under ESA, we have reams of proof that this is not, in fact, the case. The only way to clear the backlog would be to simply approve a large number of files based on the application form and the evidence provided by the claimant alone – just as they always had to.
For what it’s worth, I predict a significant increase in Support Group numbers, but the reasons for my hunch are classified.
Harrington will also release his Year 3 review in just a week or two and, again, it either has to call for very significant changes to the WCA or be discredited totally. Another fudge, any attempt to claim it will all just sort itself out, everything’s fine honest, blah, blah, blah will be the final straw. Harrington will be totally discredited and any campaigners who still have even the tiniest respect for trying to change this welfare car crash politically will dissolve.
I should not have to warn government that this is something they should avoid happening at all costs. Any group who tries to engage with the political system and finds that archaic laws are invoked to deny all recommendations from a second chamber, information is hidden and falsified, statistics are twisted and distorted or released unapproved, the press is co-opted with politicised departmental press releases and the public are made to hate them through a programme of propaganda find, they become a civil rights movement.
I am frightened by the desperation I see growing daily amongst sick and disabled people. I am frightened that people are taking their own lives and going on hunger strike. I am frightened by what form a civil rights movement takes when a group are so systematically disenfranchised by the actions of a sitting government. I am frightened by the sense amongst the people I write for, that the time for talking is passing. Maybe that it has passed.
Sometimes, people describe me as a disability campaigner. I’ve often tried to explain that I don’t see it that way. I’m a writer. I’m meant to reflect what I see, not distort it. I’m meant to dig down into the reasons for it, try to understand what motivates it.
There are only two ways for this to go. Either :
The government announces a pause to the IB to ESA transfer and a total re-design of any future out of work sickness benefit and the process of assessing a need for it
The entire process will collapse, grinding to a painful halt under the sheer weight of backlogs, appeals, bad press and public outcry. Thousands more mums and sisters and sons will die un-necessarily, all for the refusal of politicians to accept expert advice and ESA will go down in history as the most shocking human rights abuse of people with disabilities the UK has ever witnessed.
Because that’s what civil rights movements are for.