Halfway into a decade of austerity, the biggest threat posed by the Conservatives’ cuts may not be the suffering they are causing mentally ill, sick or disabled people but something altogether more lasting: that their suffering is becoming normalised.
I can think of no other reason why the work capability assessment – the now notorious test used by the Department for Work and Pensions to determine who is eligible for out-of-work sickness benefits and who should be classed as “fit for work” – remains in place.
This is a benefit assessment that has been proven to make people’s conditions worse, and that time after time has been linked to the suicides of people who were declared “fit for work” and had their sickness benefits removed.
It has now been more than 18 months since the mainstream media – including this paper – reported the death of Mark Wood. Despite struggling with multiple mental health problems, the 44-year-old was found “fit for work” in 2013 (Wood’s doctor described him as “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever”). Four months later, he was found dead in his home weighing 5st 8lb.
Any social security system requires a process that can accurately – and humanely – determine who needs out-of-work sickness benefits (and who is physically and mentally fit to be on jobseeker’s allowance, looking for work). This can’t be a test based on suspicion but one that values the opinion of the disabled person and their own doctor, rather than a stranger hired by an outsourced private company. Instead of a crude box-ticking judgment of impairment, any assessment needs to appreciate how someone’s health actually affects their ability to get and keep a job.
What exactly is the DWP waiting for? In a week where more criticism came out in relation to their impact on mental health, my Guardian column looked at the scandal of ‘fit for work’ tests.