Matt Gordon, Bristol Socialist Party
 Hardest Hit Protest: Disabled people and their families protest in central London against government spending cuts, photo Paul Mattsson

Hardest Hit Protest. Photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

On 28 January changes to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) come into force that will see hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people at risk of losing vital benefits.

These changes were tabled as ‘minor clarifications’ at the end of 2012 and have not been discussed by parliament, but in reality they completely change how ESA is awarded and will have a huge impact on some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Sick and disabled people will have their individual needs ignored and the support needed to manage their conditions could be withdrawn – instead they will be told they are ‘fit to work’. This alone will be devastating for many, without even asking the question, fit to work in what jobs?

Remploy worker speaking at the TUC demonstration at Tory Party conference, photo Paul Mattsson

Remploy worker speaking at the TUC demonstration at Tory Party conference, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

ESA was introduced in 2008 under Labour and was claimed by the government to improve the chances of getting those with long-term illnesses and profound disabilities back into work. In reality this benefit is awarded, or not awarded, via the deeply flawed and heavily criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA), administered by notorious French company Atos.

The changes to the WCA will give the ‘healthcare professionals’ at Atos even more power to withhold benefits. Assessors will now make judgements not just about a condition as it is at the time of the assessment, but about how that condition might ‘improve’ on the basis of medication, treatment or adjustments, whether or not these are suitable or easily available on the NHS. And these judgements can be made without the opinion or wishes of the claimant being taken into account.

Disability groups have drawn attention to the so-called ‘imaginary wheelchair’ aspect of the WCA test, where the assessors consider the improved ability to work if the claimant were to use a wheelchair – without discussing the suitability of a wheelchair or considering whether they are compatible with a particular workplace or their availability. This aspect of ‘imaginative guesswork’ will be extended to hearing aids, guide dogs, walking sticks and prosthetic limbs – so it is not just imaginary wheelchairs, but imaginary dogs and limbs as well!

These changes show that the Con-Dem government is not only out of touch with the hardship faced by sick and disabled people, but increasingly out of touch with reality itself.

Ordinary people live in the real world and not the imaginary world of the millionaire cabinet. We cannot ‘imagine’ the coalition out of existence, but we can stop the cuts by building a mass campaign that links the struggles of the disabled and unemployed with those of workers under attack.