Monday, 15 April 2013

The ATOS Inquisition

There was a time when the Spanish Inquisition hunted down those with the ‘wrong’ beliefs and made them recant their heresy. Now the British Government has rekindled its spirit, but with the aim of confronting the sick and the maimed so as to make them recant their disability.

Imagine you have been struck down by an illness, and according to your doctor, you will no longer be able to carry out work that would earn you a wage in today’s economy. For a time, you draw solace from the fact that you live under a state that maintains a genuine safety net for all, and you will not be left jobless, homeless, or having to beg for charity to keep you alive.

But then a Conservative-led Government comes along and decides that the best way to deflect public attention from its refusal to curb the excessive powers of the corporate elite is to serve up scapegoats. So it tells two and a half million people incapacitated by diverse forms of illness and injury that it will no longer pay any attention to what the doctors who have actually dealt with them have to say. Instead, it brings in the corporation, ATOS, to light the flame of recantation.

ATOS Inquisitors, armed with the mandate to interrogate and declare as many disabled people as undeserving of public support, have plunged countless vulnerable people into the deepest despair.

Examples of ATOS callousness and incompetence abound. Calling themselves ‘assessors’, they ask those summoned to appear before them questions such as “how long have you had Down’s Syndrome?” or “when did you catch autism?” A middle-aged woman, registered blind, was simply told that her benefit would be withdrawn. In another case, a 24-year-old epileptic, who was subject to grand mal seizures, had his benefit cut after he was ‘assessed’ to be fit for work. Just three months later, after living in fear that he could not pay his rent or buy food, he had a major seizure and died. People with debilitating and terminal cancer have also been told they had to surrender their benefits.

For those who managed to find help to appeal against ATOS, a third have had their assessments overturned. But many are too stressed or isolated to mount a challenge. Justice can only prevail if the entire inquisition regime is cast aside. The National Audit Office has investigated and found ATOS work to be unsatisfactory. The British Medical Association has asked for the assessment system to be scrapped.

But the Government is not relenting for one moment, even if people are dying from the fear and reality of losing what little money they had hitherto relied on to stay afloat. The Government is bringing in even more stringent inquisitional criteria to cut the provision of life-saving benefits. Meanwhile, they reward ATOS so handsomely that its chief executive is given a £1 million bonus.

If the ATOS Inquisition had featured in a dystopian novel about what a rightwing government might do, it would be decried as irresponsible scaremongering. Sadly it is all too real.

[To learn more about the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), take the ESA Quiz. Note: the number of people claiming benefit as they are unable to work has not actually risen since 1997]

Monday, 1 April 2013

Don’t Know Much About Politics?

In the recent ‘No, Minister’ poll (conducted between February and mid March before the latest Budget announcement), people were asked to vote for up to three Cabinet Ministers in the UK who they would like to see removed from their post.

The three Secretaries of State the British public most wanted gone turned out to be Iain Duncan Smith (Work & Pensions Secretary, picked by 46% of those who voted), Michael Gove (Education Secretary, 35%), and George Osborne (Chancellor, 34%). [As each respondent could cast up to 3 votes, the % of voters wanting different Ministers removed add up to over 100%. It is also worth noting that in a Telegraph poll of Conservative Party members, the top two favourite Ministers were Gove (41%) and Duncan Smith (14%)]

Although the response mechanism was self-selecting, a number of observations can nonetheless be made. For example, the three ‘most unwanted’ politicians share one notable characteristic: they were unapologetic in pushing forward policies that are widely debated in the media for their likely harm to vulnerable groups (e.g., the disabled, jobless, children, the poor).

By contrast, despite the severe cuts and privatisation to which NHS services are subjected, Jeremy Hunt (Health Secretary) came a distant fourth (with just 17%) after routinely apologising for the faults of the NHS while consistently deflecting blame onto NHS employees. No other Secretary of State was anywhere near being picked by 10% of those who voted, even though their actions on cutting and privatising public services would also have major negative impact. But since the impact would be channelled through opaque processes of transfers to private contractors, or weakening of intermediary bodies (e.g., local authorities, legal aid providers), the Ministers concerned remain largely under the civic radar.

This raises the question that if the electorate in general reacts primarily to reports of blatant affront to our moral sensitivity, then politicians who are skilled at dressing up their policies with soothing words and delivery complexities may escape being held to account by the public. To counter this, we would need to increase our political understanding, and back our emotive responses with critical dissection of public policies.

Worryingly, the younger generation appears to be heading in the opposite direction. It is often said that young people are active in protests, but how many are engaged in shaping and securing support for policies to be implemented by government? The signs are that very few show much interest in what government does and how it can be changed. Indeed despite the support of many youth organisations in publicising the ‘No, Minister’ poll via Twitter and other social media, hardly anyone below mid-twenties took part in the poll.

According to a recent analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey (from 1983-2010), today's young people are “less supportive of the NHS than their parents were; are less likely to favour higher benefits (though they are far more likely than their elders to be unemployed); and feel less connection to society at large than previous generations.” (‘Generation self: what do young people really care about?’, Guardian 11 March 2013)

The disengagement of young people from public institutions and collective provision undermines democracy. It could easily leave the wealthy elite to retain governmental control to serve the needs of the few. And unless political ignorance is radically dispelled, the prophecy of the government doing little for the people might just become perpetually self-fulfilling.