From top: David Cameron and Enda Kenny; Paul Murphy
Much of the Programme for Government is lifted from the Tory playbook.
Including the inhuman ‘Fit For Work’ Scheme.
Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy writes:
Writing in the Irish Independent on May 13, John Downing asked ‘how many more bombs’ are hiding in the Programme for Government.
Quite a few as it turns out.
While Fine Gael had to give some concessions on policy, like water charges, in the long discussions to form a government, the final document itself is ‘blue’ through and through.
Many of the policies contained in it are carbon copies of policies which Fine Gael’s sister party, the Conservatives, have been implementing in Britain.
The plans for the health service with the introduction of the hospital trust model and the opening up of the service for privatisation is, in its fundamentals, a copy and paste job of David Cameron’s policies over the last years.
The Tories announced a scheme to link child benefit to school attendance – and voila – there it is in the Irish Programme for government, apparently pushed by ex-Fine Gael TD and now minister Denis Naughton.
One of the most controversial policies the Tories have championed is a scheme which assesses the ability of sick and disabled people to work, the work capability assessment (WCA), and linking this with benefits.
This is part of their broader WorkFare programme which itself has an Irish cousin in the form of labour activation measures like JobBridge, Gateway and JobPath introduced by the previous government.
In the document that forms the basis for government reference is made to the introduction of a ‘Fit for Work’ programme aimed at assessing the ability of sick and disabled people, who are currently out of work and in receipt of benefit payments, to work or engage in labour activation schemes.
This could be one of the bombs that explodes in the laps of Kenny & Co.
Like with JobBridge when we launched the ScamBridge campaign in 2012 to expose the reality behind that scheme, it is time to ring the alarm bells on this Fit for Work programme and call for it to be scrapped.
ScamBridge’s assessment of the JobBridge scheme proved to be accurate – the exploitation that it involved with many scandals coming to light and its comparison with the British Workfare scheme. The mainstream media, trade unions and even that scheme’s champions, the Labour Party, have now turned their back on it and are calling for it to go.
The Fit for Work programme is couched in the same fluffy language as JobBridge – it will provide ‘supports’ for people who wish to return to work providing bridges and pathways.
However, like JobBridge and other activation measures this is really about removing people’s access to benefits and providing cheap labour to business.
The clue is in the name – it intends to declare people who are currently assessed as ill or disabled as being ‘fit for work’ to remove entitlements.
The introduction of this scheme in Britain has had devastating consequences which should serve as a warning for us.
2,380 people who were declared fit for work in Britain were dead within six weeks, that’s 90 a month, after having their payments stopped.
Over 40,000 were dead within a year between 2010 and 2014, many from suicide which campaigners say is directly attributable to the scheme.
People with disabilities and people with illnesses are directed to attend a work capability assessment which is run by a private company. A position of ‘disbelief’ is adopted by the assessor; the onus is on the individual to ‘prove’ their illness or disability.
What has been described as a ‘box-ticking exercise’ then ensues which often ignores GP and medical records.
The tasks which are used to assess someone’s fitness are basic – meaning that for instance someone who has suffered multiple heart attacks or recovering from cancer may be physically able to do a task; however repetition of such tasks in a workplace environment may suffer a relapse or bring on further illness.
For example, in recent weeks the case of Kenny Bailey has come to light. Mr. Bailey suffered a massive stroke leaving him partially paralysed and having had some of his skull removed to decrease the pressure on his brain.
However, having been found to be able to get up from a chair and walk 200 yards unaided he was declared fit to work.
Mental health disturbances or illnesses are all but ignored by the assessors. People suffering from different forms of mental health illnesses such as severe depression, anxiety or aggro-phobia were given a clean bill of health.
The result being that huge numbers of vulnerable people have been left in a position where they had their illness benefit cut off and have been unable to cope with the situation which they find themselves in or know where to go to access the appeals system or other social supports.
For instance in 2014, 44 year old Mark Woods, who suffered from ‘complex mental health conditions’ and eating disorders was found dead weeks after his benefits had been cut.
A letter from his doctor to the jobcentre said that he was ‘extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for work’ and pleaded with them not to cut his benefits because ‘he would not cope with the extra stress…his condition is extremely serious’.
However, he was cut off, as his doctor predicted he was unable to cope and essentially died from malnourishment, weighting just 5st 8lbs at the time of his death.
Money and profits are at the heart of schemes like this for right-wing governments and the companies who operate them.
While saying that schemes are there to help people into work, what they are really about is ‘making work pay’ – not by providing well-paid jobs but by cutting welfare.
The aim is to make social payments so low that no matter what health condition someone is in, they will be better off working, even if it kills them.
Furthermore, not only does it cut the safety net for people now, but it raises the bar by which future applications for welfare assistance will be decided.
People who clearly shouldn’t be working will be forced into low-paid, unsuitable jobs to try to survive. It will brutalise society.
For the companies who are given contracts to run these schemes there are massive profits to be made.
The companies are provided with a ‘reward’ for every person they can get into a job, no matter how unsuitable. There have been investigations into these companies based on allegations that they had defrauded the state by faking results.
One set of serious allegations were made against Seetec by three whistle-blowers. They were alleged to have placed disabled people into companies as free ‘interns’.
However, they then claimed to the Department of Work and Pensions that they had got them jobs, they claimed the ‘reward’ payment and from that gave a ‘wage’ to the disabled interns.
Seetec have recently won the contract in Ireland to provide the services to the government’s JobPath programme.
The use of fit-to-work assessments on disabled people, along with other ‘welfare reforms’, has led to the launching of a UN investigation into whether these types of assessments have broken their human rights.
The bar for the launching of an investigation of this type is that the claimant has to prove ‘severe’ and ‘continuous’ breaches of rights before an investigation will begin.
This investigation is historic because it is the first enquiry of its kind to be launched by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.
The inquiry will produce its report in 2017. David Cameron has tried to laugh it off. However the launching of this investigation should be a warning to everyone about how serious and potentially fatal this approach is. It should also act as a warning to the Irish government who are going down a similar line.
This horror story is why we have to oppose and force the government to drop the idea of introducing an Irish Fit to Work.
Over the last number of years, with the introduction of labour activation measures like Gateway and JobBridge we have witnessed a move in this direction. Unemployment has been treated as an individual problem rather than a societal one.
Worryingly, in the context of the British experience we have witnessed a drastic increase in the sanctioning of welfare entitlements related to labour activation schemes – sanctions have increased by 1,177% between 2011 and 2015.
This lays the basis for the use of sanctions of this nature against sick and disabled people.
Decency has to apply. If someone is sick they should not be forced to work under the threat of being thrown into abject poverty by having their payments cut.
People with disabilities want to work; it is often they who are actually stopped from gaining a job by employers due to discrimination. There needs to be enforced legislation with serious teeth to punish discrimination in the workplace. Training, education and other supports should be provided by the state to genuinely assist people with disabilities into work.
The approach of using threats, bullying and poverty as supposed motivators to disabled people will not work.
The government has been forced back on a number of issues in recent weeks, they need to be forced back on this one too.
Paul Murphy is an Anti-Austerity Alliance TD for Dublin South West. Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulmurphy