Yes, there’s Brexit. But the inaction on the fit-for-work scandal is shameless | Frances Ryan

It’s become practically a cliche of current politics to lament the way Brexit has pushed all other tasks off the agenda: leaving pressing issues like homelessness, climate change and social care to fester. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that this is hardly a new phenomenon. While the European question has undeniably derailed Britain’s domestic agenda, the political class lost sight of the key social and economic issues of our times long ago.

Few things make this clearer than “fit-for-work tests”, the linchpin of the austerity era’s pernicious “welfare reforms”. Introduced by New Labour, but accelerated dramatically by the coalition government, these assessments have falsely pushed disabled and severely ill people off benefits, and even towards suicide. A decade after one of the great modern social policy disasters first began, two particularly harrowing stories have hit the headlines. One was the case of 52-year-old Jeff Hayward, who won his “fit for work” appeal – seven months after his death. Hayward, who struggled to walk due to a debilitating skin condition, had to spend the last 18 months of his life fighting to get his benefits back. He died of a heart attack.

A few days earlier, the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to apologise after telling 64-year-old Stephen Smith to find work, despite the fact that he can barely walk, struggles to breathe and uses a colostomy bag to go to the toilet. At one point, Smith weighed only 38kg (6st), with the Liverpool Echo publishing a now viral photo of him emaciated in a hospital bed.

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It is hard to get the image of Smith’s skeletal frame out of your mind once you see it, his protruding bones more akin to a prisoner of war. But then, it takes plenty for a benefit claimant to make the papers nowadays. It is the law of fading attention: stories must get darker, illnesses more painful, deaths more disturbing.

Jeff Hayward, who won his fit-for-work appeal seven months after his death

Jeff Hayward, who won his fit-for-work appeal seven months after his death. Photograph: Holly Hayward

And yet still, nothing is done about it. The cold reality is there is no motivation for ministers to address the “fit-for-work” scandal, and little faith that the current cohort at Westminster is up to the job.

What is this alternative? Last week, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, held a meeting with disability campaigners to discuss solutions to the fit-for-work tests and other social security reforms and cuts. This non-Brexit business must continue with growing urgency.

In the short-term, we urgently need to utilise measures that will reduce the damage being caused, such as creating more advocacy groups to accompany disabled people to benefit assessments and appeals, and lobbying cash-strapped councils to protect the emergency “welfare” funds designed to help people in financial crisis but being cut across the country. This will not be easy given demands on strained local budgets, but it is a necessity.

In the long-term, the only commonsense move is to scrap the work capability assessments that decide whether or not someone is fit to work. Similarly, we must end the use of private companies in assessments, which are currently inexplicably held in higher regard than a disabled person’s own medical team.

It is a warped social security system that is based on the principle of cutting the “welfare bill” rather than helping citizens in times of need. This is in part because it is factually inaccurate that such polices save money – spending on out-of-work sickness benefits rose by £3bn above anticipated levels during the coalition years alone. Moreover, it reinforces the idea that people who are too ill to work are not fellow human beings who are suffering, but in fact leeches on the public purse.

Addressing this myth requires winning over the public by shifting the “scrounger v striver” narrative that still plagues much discussion of “welfare”. This task should not be insurmountable considering polls last year showed a softening attitude towards benefit claimants among the public, as well as a growing concern that disabled people are being deprived of their rightful support.

Yet, there is a risk that the public are becoming numbed to hardships caused by welfare reforms, particularly at a time when our attention is forced elsewhere. Above anything, as politics becomes ever more frantic, they need to be kept in the public consciousness. There is a sneering attitude in some quarters that this is small fry compared with Brexit, but the welfare state is hardly an insignificant matter, not least to those whose wellbeing depends on it. Besides, if we are to believe Britain has the skill to strike out on its own on the global stage, it is surely within its capability to create a safety net to protect its people at home. No matter what recent incarnations suggest, incompetence and indifference need not go hand in hand with government. The only other option is almost too shameful to admit: abandoning emaciated disabled people is the best Brexit Britain can do.

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

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