Up Front by Emma Hart


Cui bono?

I want to spend some time talking about the opposite of a Universal Basic Income. Well, not quite the opposite. We know what happens if a state makes no provision for its worst off. We don’t have to imagine what happens without social welfare: Engels wrote it all down for us. Then Dickens cleaned it up quite a lot and wrote it down so people would actually read it.

I want to talk about England, and the Disability Benefit. More specifically, the “Fit for Work” test. You see, one of the things we apparently have in common with England is an epidemic of people pretending to be ill, or pretending to be more incapacitated than they are. For some reason, their doctors conspire with them in this. The assessments of NHS professionals cannot be trusted, and must be verified by other NHS professionals. A government cannot, particularly in a time of austerity, allow its citizens to defraud it.

The job was outsourced to a company called ATOS. People with Parkinson’s were declared fit for work. So were people in hospital receiving cancer treatment. (Luckily, this would never happen in New Zealand.)  People were declared fit for work days before dying.

Late last year, a report was released linking Fit for Work assessments to nearly six hundred suicides.

One million recipients of disability benefit had their eligibility reassessed under the WCA tests in England between 2010 and 2013, according to researchers from the University of Liverpool.

The researchers calculated that these assessments were linked to an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 extra cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of an additional 725,000 antidepressants between 2010-13.

This is equivalent to a 5% rise in total suicides, 11% increase of self-referred mental health problems, and 0.5% more antidepressant prescriptions.

The human toll of these assessments, on people who are not job-seekers, but too physically or mentally ill to work, is appalling. On the other hand, it’s technically a success, because those 590 people are off the government’s books. If it’s morally unconscionable, at least it is actually saving money, right?

Yeah, nah. That’s when we get to here. The fit for work assessments cost more money than they save. Despite the British government having Sercoed ATOS and brought in completely different private contractors, the situation has if anything got worse.

The study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the Department for Work and Pensions is handing over £1.6bn over the next three years to private contractors who carry out the controversial health and disability assessments. 

But at the same time, the Government’s own financial watchdog has warned that savings in benefits payments are likely to be less than a billion pounds by 2020 as a result of the new tests.

Surely we can agree that this policy is purest ideology. It’s a failure in both human and financial terms. Its sole purpose is to punish people for not working. The experience of being on welfare is so appalling that people are killing themselves rather than endure it.

New Zealand is very little different. The underlying mentality is the same.

Yet a Universal Basic Income seems politically, and perhaps financially, Too Hard. Is there a middle ground, between hounding cancer patients and sending out trucks of free money? Well, I have some suggestions.

Remove the Stand-down

The stand-down is the period after you successfully apply for a benefit you’re entitled to, and before they start paying it to you. Why? Because. It’s usually two weeks, though it can be thirteen, and may be longer if you have unused holidays from a previous job.

Fuck that noise. Grabbed your kids and left your abusive partner? Good on you. Well fucking done. Have a benefit, right now. Saved money while you were working, before you got sick or lost your job? Yay you. Instead of punishing you for not pissing it all away, have a benefit, right now. Human being cannot actually live on just air, so have some money, so you don’t die.

Get Rid of Medical Assessments

I mean okay, also, bring back a separate Sickness/Invalid’s benefit. There’s a simple clear policy idea right there. Bring it back, put those people on it, and then leave them the fuck alone. (Yes, there is a Supported Living Payment, but in practical terms it’s very difficult to get, and doesn’t cover most people who would have been on a Sickness Benefit.)

Don’t work-test them. They have doctors, who know them, and specialist who, y’know, specialise. Don’t waste money paying other doctors to check up on them, and don’t make them sicker by putting them through the stress of a Designated Doctor assessment.

And don’t make people with permanent, chronic conditions and disabilities keep going to their doctor to get a certificate to say yeah, they haven’t magically regained their hearing or the use of their legs. It’s stupid. It’s just stupid.

Don’t Work-Test Care-givers

Don’t make parents of young children look for work. That thing they’re doing? It’s work, and what you pay them for it is total and utter shit.


You know what Work and Income is really, really bad at? Helping people find work. Imagine if that was their prime function, for people on the Jobseeker Allowance. You don’t have a job, you want a job, you go in, and they help you find a job. Apart from anything else, this would make things far more pleasant for their staff, if their relationship to their clients was less adversarial.

Just help. It’s the right thing to do.

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