Activist’s death highlights ‘cruelty’ of ‘fitness for work’ rules


Anti-cuts campaigners have paid tribute to a disabled activist who died last week after fighting for two years against the injustice of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment regime.

Karen Sherlock died on 8 June, just a fortnight after she was told that she would be eligible once again to receive out-of-work disability benefits.

Campaigners say her death is further evidence that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) is unfit for purpose and is causing thousands of disabled people anxiety and hardship, is exacerbating their ill-health and even contributing to some deaths.

Sherlock had several long-term health conditions, including diabetes and a heart condition, was about to start dialysis and was awaiting a kidney transplant, and experienced regular pain, exhaustion, vomiting and incontinence.

In a blog written in April, she described how her employment and support allowance (ESA) had been stopped, and accused the government of “stripping the most vulnerable of the essential benefits they need”.

She added: “Just throw them on the scrapheap. Don’t worry if they can’t feed themselves or heat their homes, or pay for taxis to take them places because they cannot walk anywhere.  No, that doesn’t matter, they are leeches on society.”

Sherlock had been forced out of her NHS job in 2008 because of serious ill-health, and although she was found eligible for ESA – the replacement for incapacity benefit – she was placed in the work-related activity group, for those expected eventually to return to employment.

She was one of the tens of thousands of disabled people whose contributory form of ESA was stopped from 30 April this year, because of the new one-year time-limit introduced under the coalition’s Welfare Reform Act.

She only found out days before she died that her latest appeal had successfully placed her in the support group for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity, and therefore would no longer be affected by the time-limit.

The disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin has pieced together Sherlock’s experiences from emails and blogs she posted between October 2010 and May 2012.

She wrote in a blog that Sherlock had been filled with “confusion, fear and anxiety” because of the assessments, appeals and administrative foul-ups she was put through, and that she felt “caught up in the mill, frustrated, angry and insignificant”.

In a blog on the New Statesman website, fellow disabled activist and blogger Sue Marsh, a friend of Sherlock’s, said she had “battled just to survive” and faced “endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms”.

Marsh has focused her campaigning efforts on the government’s new one-year time limit, which she describes as “an emblem of cruelty that really did cross the line of decency”.

She said Sherlock had been “terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.”

Asked whether Sherlock’s death demonstrated that too many ill and disabled people were being forced through a continuing cycle of assessments and appeals when clearly not fit for work, a spokesman for Chris Grayling, the Conservative minister for employment, said: “I really don’t think it’s appropriate to comment on an individual case like this.”

13 June 2012


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