There was a fascinating and distinctly disturbing episode of Channel 4’s current affairs programme Dispatches on Monday. It took an in depth and revealing look at the assessment process for the Governments controversial PIP disability benefit, to see what is the attitude of the company Capita who carries out the assessments and those it employs to the claimants going through the process. What was revealed in the film was hardly flattering but I doubt that anyone who had had to undertake one of these stressful and brutal reviews would be surprised by the callous and unfeeling mindset in which they are carried out. The film wiped away any facade that the Government’s policy towards the disabled is about improving lives or offering the correct payments to the people who deserve it and shows it for what it really is, a cold-hearted exercise in taking money from those who really need it. Last month, Work and Pensions Minister Ian Duncan Smith resigned over further benefit cuts in this year’s budget but this programme showed that even without additional pressure, the whole process seems to be designed to punish disabled people for asking for the help they deserve.
I am fortunate enough to yet endure the dreadful process and after watching this report, I fear it even more. The company in charge of carrying out the checks Captia, advertises for ‘caring’ assessors with a background in working with disabled people but it soon becomes apparent that this is just to give the appearance that they care about individuals welfare. Dispatches sent someone tailor made for the job, psychiatric nurse Noel, undercover to discover what the company really wanted their employees to do and he soon found out that Captia unsurprisingly cared more about money than people. While they appear to appeal for people with special skills, such as Noel, the training was quick to emphasise that these interviews were anything but in depth and any ability to look too closely at individuals actual needs was actively discouraged. Time meant money for Captia and its employer the DWP and each interview could last no more that 45 minutes. It is grimly laughable to think anyone could believe that a person could accurately assess someone’s full physical and mental health needs in this short window. The best you can expect is a brief outline but it is clear that’s all that is wanted. A fleeting glance at the prospective scrounger to see what they appear to be able to do at that moment and then base the assessment on that. But as any person with a severe medical condition will tell you, what is seen at first appearance is only a small part of the story. This is especially the case for people with long-term mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Yet the questionnaire only asked how the person seemed within the interview. Speaking as someone who suffers with conditions such as these I can say, it is possible to seem okay or even be okay for weeks, months at a time but that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t there and perhaps is kept in check by therapy paid for by benefits, therapy that person couldn’t function without. People like James, the young man interviewed by Dispatches, who struggles with Bulimia yet was deemed capable of cooking and feeding himself because he had no physical difficulties. His PIPs assessment didn’t take into consideration his stress and discomfort around food and the support he required to maintain a healthy diet.
No, the attitude of the training at Capita seemed to be if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist and if the person says it does they’re probably lying. Applicants are encouraged to view the people they are interviewing through a cynical filter and write their report based on that. Of course that’s a good thing, for Capita, because the glancing, vague opinion of someone who has been deliberately instructed not to pry too in-depth into someone’s condition will, of course, provide a report of an individual that needs a lot less financial help than one that has actually listened to what life is like for the person with the disability. The system is shown to have a conveyer belt, sausage factory ethic, operating to get through the assessments as quickly and efficiently as possible with little to no regard for how the outcome will ultimately effect the person’s life. People working for Capita are actively rewarded for the amount of reviews they do, with pay and bonuses linked to the number of reports turned in. Surely such a framework is bound to encourage a mentality of quantity over quality even in the most well-intentioned employee? And it’s going to be the people who have had to go through the process and endure slashes to their benefits that will be the ones that will suffer. But at that point Capita and the DWP will no longer care because their job will have already have been done.
But here’s the real punchline. I don’t think that all this great endeavour to get people on PIPs and therefore lower the benefits bill will actually save the Government any money at all in the long run. Because not only are they having to outlay the funds to run the scheme to get the whole of Britain’s disabled community onto PIPs but the drop in income for many people will mean that they will be unable to pay for the treatment to help them maintain their mental and physical health. Whether they are using their current payments to pay for mobility aids, therapy or personal assistance, if they are unable to do so they will end up being in a more dire and less independent state than before and therefore need to lean harder on the already overstretched NHS. Many employed disabled people are able to work because they use their benefits to pay for additional assistance regarding travel and care that their wages wouldn’t cover. It gives them the necessary boost to be on the same footing as their able bodied peers and become part of the workforce, an idea that the Conservative party claims its behind. Looking to make savings in the national budget by cutting disability benefit is like heating your house by setting your floors on fire. It solves the problem temporarily and will end you in a worst state than before.
It is beginning to feel like Britain is hitting tipping point in regards to the way the Government has turned disabled people into scape goats for the economy. It just isn’t working anymore and very soon, if they keep leaning on us it won’t just be disabled people that suffer.