Employment and support allowance. Work capability assessments. Atos. Few now doubt that these coalition welfare reforms have failed sick and disabled people spectacularly.
Tragically, we knew that ESA was failing from the early pilots. But they were only affecting a few. The decision to roll it out nationwide to 1.9 million of the most vulnerable, often long-term, claimants has proved disastrous.
With over a quarter of a million claims found to be incorrect in law, successful appeal rates of 43 per cent, daily stories of the destitution and anxiety it is causing and now, the quite incredible announcement that Atos have walked away from the contract altogether, few now doubt that we must change path. And we must do it quickly.
But simply replacing one outsourced corporate provider with another will not fix the fundamental flaws inherent in ESA. Results are inconsistent, a judicial review has ruled that they discriminate against people with mental health conditions but, primarily, the ‘descriptors’ – the set of tasks someone must fulfil to be found ‘fit for work’ – are ludicrous and set by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Campaigners and charities alike have fought tirelessly to improve the system, but, sadly, progress has been far too slow and improvements negligible. However, policymakers have often criticised those fighting for a better system for knowing what they are against, but not what they are for.
Today, to address that criticism, the Spartacus Network of sick and disabled campaigners launch perhaps its most ambitious work to date. The network was formed when thousands of sick and disabled people came together online to fight the government’s disability benefit reforms – also chaotic and ill thought-through. Since then, we have launched six major reports that have received widespread support and respect. All of the people who carry out our research, or support on social media and further afield, suffer from long-term illnesses or live with impairments themselves. We have experienced the system and know the barriers we really face from day to day. We know what work we might be able to do if the system truly wanted to support us.
Beyond the Barriers took three years to research, looking at systems that work around the world, analysing the data we have to date, totally redesigning an out-of-work sickness benefit system that incorporates many of the suggestions other groups and charities have fought for and suggesting a whole range of recommendations, in every section to improve outcomes for people crying out for genuine support. We ran five consultations and received over 1,200 responses, enabling us to illustrate our recommendations with real case studies throughout.
Policymakers have been desperately slow to accept that all of the warnings were well founded. Politicians of all parties must now come together, putting politics to one side and start an urgent conversation – more than that, the time for talking may have just begun but the time for action is long overdue. There must be no more excuses, no more wasted lives, no more vilification. Beyond the Barriers aims to start that conversation – and it is just that, a starting point. But we believe it is the most comprehensive work to date.
Illnesses or disability can strike anyone at any time. It is not a partisan issue. At the moment we are failing those who need us most and we can do better – so much better – than this.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.