The minister for disabled people is facing calls to resign after posting a hostile and “dangerous” post on social media that warned benefit claimants his department would “track you down” and “bring you to justice”.
Tom Pursglove and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been warned that a video accompanying the post “must be withdrawn immediately” because of the harm it will cause to claimants’ mental health.
They had failed to do so by noon today (Thursday).
The video – posted by DWP on Twitter and by Pursglove on his Facebook page – is a clumsy parody of a speech in the violent Liam Neeson thriller Taken, in which Neeson’s character promises: “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
In the DWP video, Pursglove says to camera: “We will track you down. We will find you. And we will bring you to justice.”
There was a furious response to the post from disabled people, and within 72 hours it had been deleted from the DWP Twitter account, although it could still be seen on Pursglove’s Facebook page at noon today (Thursday) and was reposted with a different message on DWP’s Twitter account.
Pursglove (pictured) appears to be wearing a stab-proof vest in the video, which starts with blue flashing lights and police sirens and sees a team of DWP civil servants and police officers apparently arresting someone in their flat.
Although DWP later said the arrest was connected to an alleged £800,000 fraud involving multiple faked identities, there was no suggestion of organised crime in the initial tweet.
Instead, he boasted that DWP has “a very particular set of skills that we use in conjunction with the police to tackle fraud”, another parody of the Taken speech, in which Neeson’s character also says he has “a very particular set of skills”.
It is the latest action by DWP ministers over the last decade that has appeared certain to whip up hostility against disabled people who need support from the social security system.
But there is also likely to be frustration with the Labour party, after the party only allowed shadow minister for disabled people Vicky Foxcroft to deliver a mild criticism of the posts and the video.
She said: “Sensational videos such as this do absolutely nothing to increase disabled people’s trust in the DWP.
“Deliberate benefit fraud needs to be addressed, but most organised fraud does not involve disability benefits.”
Many disabled campaigners reacted with astonishment to the DWP post, describing it as “disgusting”, “unbelievable” and “frightening”.
Dr Jay Watts, a disabled activist and consultant clinical psychologist, said she could not “emphasize enough how dangerous this messaging is, nor how damaging it can be to claimants’ mental health”.
She said: “The DWP video not only plays on fears of persecution and being accused of wrongdoing, which claimants tell us in clinic provokes terror, despair, and anxiety – quite understandably, unfortunately, given the cruelty of our current welfare system – but also ramps up the messaging with highly evocative and persecutory language almost perfectly designed to trigger fear responses in the body.
“For any member of the public deluded enough to believe the DWP’s likely response that the messaging will only affect people considering fraud, let me tell you this: mental health clinicians such as myself spend a considerable amount of time convincing people in desperate need that they deserve benefits because the pervasive fear we nearly all hold is that we’ve done something wrong.
“When I say that this policy will get inside people’s heads in terms of intrusive thoughts and persecutory auditory hallucinations, I mean it quite literally.
“This video is unacceptable, and it must be withdrawn immediately.”
Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “That message was designed to bully and intimidate disabled people, many of them already in severe mental distress.
“Pursglove knows this. He is not fit to be minister for disabled people and should resign.”
Mark Williams, founder of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, also called for Pursglove to resign.
He said the video was “a worrying response from a government department that targets those who are less likely to hit back” and was failing to target “the real culprits of serious fraud such as tax evaders”.
He said: “It is a typical reaction to what the government thinks Conservative voters want to hear as part of their Culture Wars rhetoric.”
Fiona Robertson, a disabled equalities consultant and former national equalities convenor for the SNP, said her heart had been “racing” since she saw the video.
She described in a blog how Pursglove’s tweet had activated the trauma she experienced 15 years ago – under a Labour-led DWP – when she was wrongly accused of benefit fraud.
DWP had taken pictures of her carrying shopping, even though she had made it clear in her application that her condition was fluctuating and that she “had days when I had to just do stuff and pay the energy and pain cost later”. Her benefits were later reinstated.
She said: “It’s been more than 15 years, and still every time I’m outside – every time – I’m afraid.
“Sometimes it’s just a background hum, sometimes it makes it hard to go out. I am aware all the time of how I look to a spy – am I smiling too much, moving too easily?”
Robertson said the incident had affected both her mental and physical health.
She wrote: “When physios recommend exercises using gym equipment or daily walks outside, I have to weigh the risk of complying because it might be used to take everything from me. Sometimes I’ve decided it’s worth it, sometimes not.”
She said: “This messaging from the DWP and, horrifically, from the Minister for Disabled People himself, is an act of material violence.
“It has catastrophic effects on people’s lives and physical and mental wellbeing. It is unforgivable.”
DWP claims it deleted the original tweet because it needed to make the details of the fraud case clearer, but it has refused to apologise for the video.
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “The suspects in the video are alleged to have created a number of identities to defraud £800,000 from the government – a very serious alleged attack on money meant for vulnerable people.
“We make no apology for using our channels to both deter fraudsters and reassure the public that we are using every tool in our armoury to protect taxpayers’ money.
“As is usual, the minister’s portfolio also covers other areas, one of which is fraud against the welfare system.
“This cost the taxpayer £8.6 billion last year and it is right that we do all we can to reduce that and ensure money goes to those who need it.
“This government is committed to supporting disabled people and those with health conditions live independent lives with the full support of the welfare payments available.”
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