Beyond the Paralympics: The Crisis in Disability Welfare
By Aaron Payne
Two major events happened in the world of disability this
week: firstly, the Paralympic opening ceremony, and
secondly, a protest by disabled people outside the Atos
headquarters in central London, against the Work
Capability Assessment. The first event was widely reported;
the second had to wait for a proper treatment until
Newsnight at 10.30pm. Needless to say, more people will
see coverage of the former event than of the latter.
The Paralympics will last for two weeks, and will raise the
profile of a group of elite athletes. They may change
national or worldwide perceptions about disabled people,
although a consensus forming behind that idea is notably
lacking. The Work Capability Assessment is ongoing, and
will last until the government has assessed every single person receiving incapacity benefits. In national
terms, the second event is of far greater import than the first, profoundly changing the landscape of
disability provision in Britain.
So far, 37% of the subjects of concluded Work Capability Assessment cases have been newly found fit to
work. Chris Grayling, Minister for Employment, enlightened us with the following: “These first figures
completely justify our decision to reassess all the people on incapacity benefits. To have such a high
percentage who are fit for work just emphasises what a complete waste of human lives the current system
Grayling‟s analysis rests upon a key assumption: that the figures are based upon fair and accurate tests. If
indeed 37% of incapacity claimants were revealed to be scrounging or, alternatively, so stupid that they had
been claiming the wrong benefit, then the government‟s reassessment is indeed justified. Conversely, if it
were true that, in fact, the Assessment is itself unfit for purpose, and that the figures revealed by it are
therefore really very meaningless, then there is no justification whatsoever in the figures for the
government‟s policy of assessment.
Here is another figure: of those 37% of incapacity claimants found fit to work, 40% have won successful
appeals. As an appeal can take up to a year to process, we may safely assume that more successful appeals
are pending. If that wasn‟t enough to prove that the Work Capability Assessment was deficient, then how
about claims by disabled people that the tests are humiliating, arbitrary and sometimes baffling, with
claimants being asked to pick objects up from the floor, asked how long they can concentrate on television
for, or perhaps how long they can sit down? These questions are used to answer an eight page tick-box
form, in comparison with the previous sixty page form with space for written answers. Three weeks later,
many disabled people find themselves with a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions detailing
the cuts to their benefit payments. Pauline Peters, a protester at Atos‟ headquarters, said she personally
knew seven people who had taken their own lives in the last eleven months due to the stress of
The government says that it is reforming disability benefit. Despite changes to the names of payments to
new, sexy titles such as the Personal Independence Payment, it is very clear that the priority of the Work
Capability Assessment is not really „reform‟, which implies progression, at all, but cost-cutting, which
implies funding withdrawal and a deeply regressive willingness to sacrifice social justice to GDP.
The fraud rate of Employment Support Allowance stands at 0.3%, and the fraud rate of Incapacity Benefit
at 0.5%. The government is spending £600m on the Work Capability Assessment. If the government was
really looking to make efficient savings, might it not be better to close tax loopholes than sieve the disabled
population through a – frankly stupid – tick-box test? The cost of the appeals process alone must be huge.
David Cameron, on the eve of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, said “I think we can be proud of the fact
that we‟ve been something of a trailblazer in Britain, passing equality legislation and disability legislation”.
He is right. But with his fist wrapped around the end of the unravelling thread that is Britain‟s commitment
to a fair and progressive attitude to disability (and which had so much further to go!), he does not deserve to
let such a sentence pass his lips.