When I used to write letters to ministers for a living, it struck me that Damian Green was relatively decent. Well, if you ignore the appalling voting record, the missives we got back from the civil servant who scribbled his letters in immigration suggested he was a reasonable bloke, albeit one hemmed in by the politics he chose to associate himself with. This was entirely of a different character to his predecessor at the Department for Work and Pensions. Iain Duncan Smith’s letters cadenced his cruelty with evangelism and zealotry. Now Damian Green has taken over from the execrable IDS, in a rare Tory concession to decency he has announced the government will no longer subject the chronically ill to repeat work capability assessments. Good.
Readers not familiar with the Work Capability Assessment will recall the well-publicised misery its work fitness test has caused. Not only have seriously ill and disabled people been found work fit, because the “trained medical professional” assessors deemed them capable of some form of employment, it has exacerbated illness in a great many cases as the dread of the assessment and the anxiety of going through the appeal process for many hundreds of thousands of people have compounded their conditions. We know it’s been a factor in several premature deaths and suicides. Whether you believe whether some kind of independent, non-medical test is appropriate to qualify an applicant for social security or not (and I don’t), if you can be found work fit simply because you went to your interview in a suit then obviously something is horrendously wrong.
Nevertheless, the Tories do not deserve any credit for exempting the chronically ill from future evaluations. It is true that Labour, for its sins, introduced this horrendous test. But the Tories made it their own, aided (lest we forget) at all times by the Liberal Democrats. The main question they have to answer is why chronically ill people, who aren’t going to get better(the clue is in the name) were subject to repeat testing in the first place. The government have overseen social security policy for six years. If common sense proved elusive, there was evidence aplenty pouring in from the rate of successful appeals, repeat submissions from disability campaigners and charities, and the petitioning of Tory MP constituency surgeries by worried people. For years they’ve turned a tin ear to the experiences of some of our most vulnerable, and that alone condemns them.
On The Sunday Politics this lunch time, the formerly media-shy IDS was asked about this. He put up some waffle about the nature of the test. Under the old Disability Living Allowance system, access to disability payments was on the basis of medical diagnosis and need. Employment Support Allowance, which is basically dole for ill and disabled people, came with all kinds of conditionalities around income, capacity to undertake work-related tasks, and availability for “training”. IDS argued he wanted to change the system to recognise the long-term ill and incurably sick, but was thwarted by the incompatibility of the two sets of support. The genius of the WCA was to disregard any and all medical evidence presented by applicants and recipients, and focus on whether they could lift a cardboard box or sit still for more than five minutes. Therefore to do what Damian Green has said means overhauling the test quite radically, tilting it – rightly – toward medical evidence. If indeed IDS is speaking the truth, and we know that our self-serving friend has form for a fib or two, then he was actively being overruled by Dave. That makes for another nail in the ex-PM’s wretched coffin.
There’s a whiff of cynicism about this. Since May appeared in front of Downing Street to do her Ed Miliband impression, this has been a government on a go-slow. The media again focused on the unnecessary Labour leadership contest and so a summer of Tory to-ing and fro-ing over Brexit, with May having to intervene publicly to slap down the likes of Johnson and disgraced international trade minister Liam Fox, went virtually unnoticed as far as folks outside of Westminsterland are concerned. They can’t hide their paralysis forever – governing things involves being seen to govern things, after all. Piloted by Green, this change generates positive headlines, helps radiate an aura of Tory sensiblism and fluffiness, and gives some substance to May’s one nationist pose. Pure coincidence the announcement is timed perfectly for Conservative Party Conference. If the decision was heartfelt and genuine, it would have been enacted in July. Meanwhile, the WCA continues alongside the system of punitive welfare sanctions. Note no change here: misery is fine as long as it remains politically expedient.