I’m looking out of my bedroom window again, watching the blanket of snow get thicker and thicker as the day goes on. I’ve got a bit of a cold so I haven’t ventured out, but from my warm lookout inside the castle the scene outside is stunning.
The three big trees I can see are heavy with snow. Every branch is spread with a thick covering, from their broad limbs lower down to the spindly twigs swaying into the sky.
Facebook is full of photos of families out enjoying the snow together. But while I look at the peaceful scenes outside my window and on my computer my mind keeps returning to the many people whose lives will be made even harder by this cold snap.
The sweeping cuts I’ve written about lots times already will mean that as I write many people will be without the resources they need to keep themselves warm, and others will be unable to leave their homes, housebound by illness or disability. Cuts to local authority and support services budgets will make it even harder for organisations to respond effectively.
At work we advertise a scheme that gives out free winter coats to children and adults that need them. Every time I look at the poster about it I feel conflicted. I’m pleased that such a practical and simple scheme exists but sad that we live in a time when it’s necessary.
I know on a day that’s bright with snow, writing about such sad things could make me seem a killjoy. But as I’ve sat and watched the snow drift in the garden it’s been the people who are often the least visible in our communities who have settled in my mind. And it’s obvious that for many people these struggles won’t be limited just to days of extreme weather.
One of the main reasons why I’m in this reflective mood is that besides looking out of the window and on Facebook I’ve been finding out about some changes to how Employment Support Allowance (ESA) is to be assessed. ESA is a benefit for people who aren’t able to work because of an illness or a disability. To qualify for it, they have to undergo a much-criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA). A week from tomorrow, changes will come into force, making it even less humane process.
The changes are being billed as ‘Small amendments’ but in reality they’ll have a huge impact. As with the changes being made to eligibility for the new PIP benefit that I wrote about last week, the goal posts are being shifted to reduce even further the number of people receiving support.
One key change to the existing criteria for the WCA is so ridiculous that if it wasn’t actually happening it would pure satire. The assessor (a healthcare professional who could be a doctor, a nurse or a physiotherapist) will be able, without any discussion with the person being assessed, to ‘imagine’ what aids or treatments ‘might’ improve someone’s ability to work, and on that basis assess them as fit. These ‘imaginary’ aids might be things the person doesn’t own and might not be able to use even if they did, and there’s no responsibility to provide evidence that a treatment or aid would help.
For example, if my health worsened and I wasn’t able to work as I do now, an assessor could ‘imagine’ that a medication might reduce my tics and mean I was able to work. They wouldn’t have to discuss this with me, consider my views, or review my medical history. Nor would they need to consider the impact of any side-effects of this miracle medication (even though these might make me unable to work for completely new reasons). They could declare me fit to work on the basis of this ‘imaginary’ medication and take away any benefits I might’ve been getting. It’s beyond a joke.
But this sort of thing’s already happening. An MP told the House of Commons last week that an incontinent disabled constituent had been told she was fit to work and that all she needed to do was wear a nappy.
I find it almost incomprehensible that we have an assessment process which means that people at their most vulnerable – sick, disabled, in pain – are being judged not on their actual situation but on the power of their assessor’s imagination. It’s absurd, but it will mean that hundreds of thousands of people will face very real hardship.
And, if you can, donate a coat.