By Bob Duncan
MSPs in the Holyrood Welfare Reform Committee have been told today how a blind former health worker has been reduced to begging as a result of the UK government’s welfare reforms.
The committee have been hearing from people about their personal experiences of the welfare system, with one man saying he had been made to feel “like a criminal”.
MSPs were told how a blind former health worker, Henry Sherlock, was reduced to begging after being interviewed and reassessed by the Department of Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare, the private firm paid to carry out fit-to-work medical assessments, claiming both of them had “harassed and bullied” him.
He told how he had been threatened with having his benefits stopped after refusing to provide personal information after receiving an unannounced call from Atos one Saturday evening.
In a statement read out by the committee clerk, Mr Sherlock, 50, who is blind with chronic heart disease, diabetes and depression, said:
“I still rely on family handouts and additional begged support in order to live. I thought the days of the blind man begging with a cup on street corners were gone. Sadly, that is not the case.
“It truly is a sad reflection of any government that refuses to see the true fear it has put the most vulnerable in our society under. In my opinion, it is simple persecution. We did not choose our disabilities,” he added.
Committee convener, Labour MSP Michael McMahon, said: “When you hear this experience of Atos, they can’t justify what they are doing on the basis that they are only acting on the instructions of the government.”
MSPs also heard the benefits system described as a “Kafkaesque” machine that used “lies and misinformation” to deprive people of their benefits. The wife of another claimant told how she took down her husband’s assessment “word for word” and described the contents of the resultant report as “practically the opposite” of what had been said.
The assesment of vulnerable claimants is carried out by Atos Healthcare, the company which is carrying out the UK Government’s Work Capability Assessment contract. Claimants who receive incapacity benefit or income support on grounds of ill health are assessed by a board from the private company who then make a decision based on the individuals appearance and answers to set questions.
Welfare Reform Committee member Annabelle Ewing said it is “disgusting” that there is no discretion in the welfare system and called for an immediate rethink.
Ms Ewing said: “When you have someone who is trying to get the benefits they need telling you that they feel like they are being treated like a “criminal” during the eligibility assessment process, something clearly is not working.
“I find it disgusting there is no discretion in the welfare system and do not know how it is possible to run the system in this way.
“The system does not take personal circumstances into account and we need the UK Government to realise situations are not black and white.
“Even Tory MSP Alex Johnstone admitted there were problems with the way things are playing out with the changes.
“These Tory welfare cuts will hit Scotland’s poorest and most vulnerable groups hardest, so it is no wonder the recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that 72 per cent of people want more powers for Scotland.
“The only way to fully rectify this is for Scotland to have full powers over welfare and benefits just like any normal independent country.”
MEANWHILE – SNP MSPs are calling on the UK government to reverse a decision to close two Remploy factories in Scotland which was announced today in a letter issued by parliamentary under secretary of state for disabled people, Esther McVey.
Aberdeen and Edinburgh factories are deemed surplus to requirement by Ms McVey, despite the campaign to save the Remploy outlets.
Kevin Stewart, MSP for Aberdeen Central, has hit out at the UK government for rejecting a bid to keep the Aberdeen Remploy factory open.
Mr Stewart said:
“I am aghast that the new minister for disabled people has rejected the bid to keep the Aberdeen factory open.
“I know that the management and staff in Aberdeen have done everything possible to improve productivity and reduce overheads, and were in the process of creating a viable, long-term future for their business.
“This harsh news comes at the same time that the UK Government’s welfare reform plans are having a major impact on our disabled citizens. This is yet another example of the damaging impact of a Tory-led government taking decisions for Scotland – and why these powers should be held by an independent Scottish Parliament, 100 per cent elected by the people of Scotland.”
Bob Doris, MSP for Glasgow, who has spearheaded the campaign to save Remploy in Springburn, said he was still waiting for confirmation on its future.
“It is so frustrating and disappointing that the UK government plans to shut these factories down, and my thoughts are with the employees and their families in this difficult time.
“My concerns over the process at Springburn are well documented. However I remain hopeful that a successful buyer that respects workers’ pay and conditions can be delivered.
“My sympathies go to the sister factories elsewhere in Scotland that are set to close. Here at Springburn Remploy everyone will be holding our breath during this anxious time.”
Colin Keir, MSP for Edinburgh Western, added.
“This is a kick in the teeth for everyone who has campaigned to save the factory here in Edinburgh. The fight will not stop here and I intend to lobby the UK Government further, in the hope that they may see sense reverse this decision.
“This letter to MSPs reveals an all too familiar lack of respect from Westminster. They shouldn’t write to MSPs – and indeed wouldn’t dare write to MPs – with bad news in such an impersonal manner on such an important issue.”