Last week I made a speech in Parliament raising awareness about this government's cruel and demeaning system for testing those who are living on Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). There are 5000 people affected by this new Work Capability Assessment in my constituency and millions more across the country. These are some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our society although you'd be forgiven for thinking the Tories had somehow forgotten this. This government seem hell bent on bringing back Victorian levels of poverty and misery to the poor, whilst at the same time giving a tax cut to the wealthy.
The stories of my constituents paint a terrible picture. One man, a double-leg amputee, was told to undertake an 80-mile round trip for his Work Capability Assessment. Another, who was treated for cancer in July 2010, was deemed fit for work before the results of his operation came through. And a district nurse, who has broken her back, has been told that she too is deemed fit to work. These are just a handful of the stories myself and my colleagues are now seeing every week.
Fundamental reform of the system is needed, including most importantly the way these cases are assessed. Currently the ATOS administered Work Capability Assesments are wildly unrealistic, demeaning and unfair. Here are just a few examples from the written guidance. "A person who cannot mount or descend two steps" is deemed capable to work. "A person who cannot use a pencil or pen to make a meaningful mark" is deemed capable to work. "A person who is unable to navigate around unfamiliar surroundings, without being accompanied by another person, due to sensory impairment" is deemed capable to work.
Also supposedly fit for work is someone who "cannot learn anything beyond a simple task, such as setting an alarm clock", or whose "reduced awareness of everyday hazards leads to a significant risk of... injury to self or others... such that they frequently require supervision."
It's patently obvious that in today's climate these individuals will not find a job, in fact in many cases they will slip off benefits all together. This will solve a problem for the Tories, who will be able to claim they've reduced the benefits bill. But it will leave many vulnerable people destitute. Some will end up on the streets.
Despite their weasel words this government does have a choice about how they treat the disadvantaged in our society. They did not have to give a £2.5billion tax cut to the richest this April. This money could instead have gone to the most vulnerable and needy many of whom are now being stripped of their disability and ESA benefits.
This government must stop peddling the line that there is no alternative and come up with a decent system which keeps the vulnerable and disadvantaged off the streets and away from harm and danger.