Disabled activists were outside the Westminster offices of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) this week to oppose a “farcical” public consultation into proposed changes to the work capability assessment that they believe would cause further deaths of claimants.
The protest was led by Disabled People Against Cuts, but also attended by the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, the Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle, and members of Unite Community union and Waltham Forest Stand Up For Your Rights.
After protesting outside DWP’s Caxton House offices, activists moved to block the street from traffic for about half an hour.
The protest was peaceful, and police at the scene made no attempt to prevent the action or arrest any activists.
The action took place on the final day of a consultation into the proposals to tighten the work capability assessment (WCA).
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale told Disability News Service (DNS) that the proposals would make the “terrible” harm and injustice already caused by the WCA and the government’s sanctions policy “a hundred times worse”.
She said: “I have got personal experience as well as research experience of the terrible, terrible harms, terrible injustice being caused by the WCA and the policy of sanctions and this latest move they are proposing would make everything a hundred times worse than it already is… and it’s terrifying.”
She said one in four people with ME are either housebound or bedbound and “for them the support group is the only form of safety from compulsion to attend job centres and work preparation job schemes”.
Hale spoke out nine years ago about the “sanction first, ask questions later” approach to benefit claimants taken by DWP decision-makers, after she had more than £70 a week of her employment and support allowance (ESA) stripped from her for three months because she could not attend a back-to-work workshop that a government assessment had already concluded would be inaccessible to her.
She said this week that the government’s new proposals would “cause destitution and death” on an “unprecedented” scale, and she added: “I don’t have much hope that the Tories are listening to us, but I hope the Labour party are listening to us and taking heed.”
Andy Greene, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said the direct action had shown that it was still safe for disabled people to take part in such protests, despite the government bringing in “draconian” new anti-protest laws through its Public Order Act earlier this year.
He told DNS: “I would say that despite its draconian measures to prevent people from turning out on the streets to defend their rights, we have shown once again that it doesn’t matter what laws are in place, our rights are intrinsic and we will defend them, defend services, defend our community consistently.
“We have shown today that you can protest on the streets safely and securely and have a collective voice if you have faith in each other.”
Claire Glasman, co-founder of WinVisible, said the government wanted to “take away the disability benefits that make the difference between putting the heating on and staying in the cold”.
She pointed to the death of Elaine Morrall, a disabled mother of four who died in her freezing flat in November 2017 – she was found indoors wearing her coat, hat and scarf – after having her ESA stopped by DWP.
Glasman told fellow activists: “This is what the government has in mind for us, and we are here to refuse. We are not expendable. Our lives matter.”
DPAC’s Paula Peters told protesters the consultation was “farcical” and called on them to contact their MPs to express their opposition to the “heinous, evil next steps with the work capability assessment”.
She said: “We need to let them know about how we feel about what they are doing.
“We need to put a stop to the deaths. What the government are doing to disabled people is deliberate. Today we say loud and we say it clearly: no more benefit deaths.”
She added later: “This government has blood on its hands from the deaths of disabled people. It’s fact, it’s truth, it’s reality.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, who had travelled from Edinburgh for the protest, told activists: “This is one of the biggest human rights issues in this country today.
“This is a time when the whole of the country needs to unite behind the struggles of disabled people and reject the narrative of the government that it is sick and disabled people who are responsible for bankrupting the country.”
He said society needed to “wake up” and realise that “one day, unless they unite with us, they may find themselves destitute and homeless, begging on the streets, simply because they have fallen sick or become disabled”.
In his response to the WCA consultation, McArdle has told ministers that the proposed changes would “jeopardise the safety and well-being of claimants”, and he added: “Pushing individuals into activities they are not ready for may lead to increased stress, exacerbation of mental health conditions, and, in some cases, tragic outcomes like suicide.”
Carole Vincent, from East London Unite Community and Waltham Forest Stand Up For Your Rights, told the protest: “It will kill more people if we don’t stand up and tell them no more benefit cuts.
“They will cut again if we don’t stop them. What’s about to come will cause more deaths, more destitution.”
One of the disabled activists who took part in the protest, Emma Gordon, from WinVisible, told DNS that the proposed changes were “absolutely horrific” and would affect her and have a “very wide impact” on disabled people.
A key concern about the WCA plans is the proposal to remove a safety net that for decades has protected disabled people seen as being at “substantial risk” of harm if found fit for work or work-related activity.
This measure has particularly protected those sectioned under the Mental Health Act, with active thoughts of suicide, or who have had a recent episode of self-harm that needed medical attention.
But the proposals announced by work and pensions secretary Mel Stride in September also suggest removing the absence of bowel or bladder control, the inability to cope with social interaction, and the inability to access a location outside the claimant’s home, from the list of activities and “descriptors” used in the WCA.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to Stride expressing concerns about the consultation.
The commission said it believed the eight-week consultation period was “insufficient to enable disabled people and their representative organisations to respond meaningfully”.
But it also said it was concerned that the consultation documents failed to include any “analysis of the potential impacts of the proposals on disabled people and other protected characteristic groups”.
Baroness Falkner, EHRC’s chair, said in the letter that concerns had been raised that the proposed changes, particularly the proposal to amend the “substantial risk” criteria, “could place disabled people at increased risk of both financial and psychological harm, with potentially serious equality and human rights implications”.
A commission spokesperson said: “It is vital that disabled people are granted the proper opportunity to engage meaningfully with this consultation process.
“We have urged DWP to extend the consultation deadline and to publish detailed analysis of the potential impact of proposals on different groups as a matter of urgency.”
Picture: Claire Glasman (left) and Emma Gordon (centre) with a WinVisible banner outside the DWP offices
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