Appalled disabled activists have warned the British Medical Association (BMA) that it will be “complicit” in the future deaths of patients, after the doctors’ union refused to speak out about “very dangerous” new benefit rules affecting severely-ill claimants.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week how the rules can force people applying for the government’s new universal credit to look for jobs and take part in training, even if their GPs have said they are not fit for work.
Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the Scottish grassroots campaign group Black Triangle, who works as a GP in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, said last week that the “substantial risks” were “incalculable”, and that GPs had not been told about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) rules.
BMA has previously been reluctant to involve itself in safety concerns around DWP’s fitness for work tests, although its public position has been that the work capability assessment (WCA) “should be scrapped with immediate effect and replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to the weakest and most vulnerable people in society”.
Despite that position, it took more than two-and-a-half years for Carty, Black Triangle and other campaigners to persuade the union to agree to tell every GP in the country about two regulations that protect many disabled people facing the WCA.
Yesterday – five days after DNS asked whether it was aware of the new universal credit rules and if it was concerned about their potential impact – a BMA spokeswoman said: “The assessments of benefits has been independent of GPs for years, so whilst I am sure many will have strong opinions on this, it is not something as an organisation we have anything new to say on it.”
Black Triangle is now working with supportive doctors to develop a campaign on the universal credit rules, and is preparing itself for another battle with BMA.
John McArdle (pictured), Black Triangle’s co-founder, said: “BMA’s silence will make them complicit in the destruction of disabled people’s lives and in the deaths of innocent disabled people, their patients.”
He said he had been reminded of how, at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, the AIDS community had adopted the slogan “silence equals death” to “mobilise the medical profession and the wider community into action to save lives”.
McArdle said the BMA’s silence on the universal credit rules would “go down as a day of infamy for an organisation which has betrayed its sacred duty to protect and defend human life”.
He said the organisation had also betrayed its duty to represent doctors “who we believe will be as appalled as us at this shameful act of complicity”, which was happening “at a time when disabled people are looking at another five years of Conservative rule”.
The rules – which have never been announced or publicised by DWP – apply to new universal credit claimants who are waiting for a WCA.
They mean that they could have their benefits sanctioned for up to three months if they fail to follow strict instructions from a job coach with no medical training, even if they have a “fit note” from their GP stating that they are not fit for work.
They are forced to attend a “health and work conversation” and could be forced into further work-related activity, such as training or employment programmes, and could also face sanctions if they fail to show they have searched for a job for up to 35 hours a week, and have not made themselves available for paid work.
Potential sanctions will continue to hang over their heads until their fitness for work is eventually tested through a WCA, which could take months.
The new rules – uncovered by Black Triangle’s sister organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – apply to sick and disabled people who would previously have been eligible for income-based employment and support allowance (ESA), which is gradually being phased out in the move to universal credit, but not to those eligible for the contribution-based form of ESA, which will continue alongside universal credit.
Under ESA, claimants with a fit note from their GP are not expected to carry out any work-related activity and continue to receive a lower assessment rate of the benefit until they have had their WCA and a decision is reached on their eligibility.
DWP has insisted that universal credit claimants with a fit note will only be forced to carry out “reasonable” work-related activity that is “tailored to the individual’s circumstances”, while work coaches will demand no work-related activity “if appropriate”.
But activists believe the potential harm caused to severely-ill people could be catastrophic and potentially fatal.
Anita Bellows, a DPAC researcher, said: “It is very disappointing to see that the BMA has refused to comment on the DWP policy, which will force people assessed as unfit for work by their GP to attend a mandatory health and work conversation, whatever the severity of their health condition.
“GPs have the duty of making the care of their patients their first concern and their refusal to speak up on their behalf will be seen rightly as a dereliction of duty.”