This is the text of an opinion piece by PPR that was carried in the Andersonstown News on 12 May 2018

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement there is a new type of violence being visited upon West Belfast. One that is based on what renowned film director Ken Loach has labelled conscious cruelty’. There is hardly a family, street or district that hasn’t been touched by the roll out of Universal Credit,  a benefits system ostensibly designed to simplify the benefits system and to make work pay,  but in reality one that is driving people to poverty, food banks, illness and despair and too often, to premature death.  What’s more, this stripping away of the dignity and rights of the most vulnerable people in society is being hidden in plain sight. Seemingly anodyne processes - brown envelopes, phone calls, form filling and interviews – administrative and bureaucratic processes which are happening behind closed doors, are amounting to what the UN has found to be ‘grave and systematic violations’ of the rights of disabled people. Nowhere can this be more starkly seen at present than in the Personal Independence Payment assessment process.

In last week’s Andersonstown News Margaret McLarnon bravely spoke out about the impact that being denied her entitlement to Personal Independence Payment has had on her and her family. She described how, despite suffering from crippling anxiety following two heart attacks, she was twice denied the financial support she needed, and is now being forced to go through an arduous appeals process.  Her assessment of what lies behind this cruelty was spot on “the assessors are making up what they want to put down on paper to save money”.

The Tory government didn’t even feel the need to hide the fact that the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was designed to achieve a 20% reduction in the disability benefits budget. The roll out of PIP in the north of Ireland began in June 2016 and has an overall target of 125,000 claimants to be assessed.  Constituencies such as North and West Belfast, which were among those most severely impacted by decades of conflict, have, as a direct result of this, a higher proportion of people in receipt of disability benefit.  As of November 2017 16,510 people in the West Belfast constituency were in receipt of DLA, all of whom will be forced to undergo a re-assessment.

A direct corollary can be drawn between the increased suffering of vulnerable people as a result of the roll out of PIP and other elements of Universal Credit on the one hand, and the inexorable advance of privatisation of the social security system on the other. Capita, the largest outsourcing company in the UK, is being paid £60 million by the Department for Communities to administer PIP. What this means in practice, as Margaret McLarnon’s experience highlighted, is that privately employed ‘health assessors’ are being paid to write assessment reports that ignore both the claimant’s own experience as well as their GPs and other medical experts reports. Given this approach, there is no question but that these assessors are in breach of their own professional codes of conduct; this is an issue currently being examined by the Professional Standards Authority.

At the heart of what is wrong with the PIP assessment process are the same fundamental failures that are mirrored in other aspects of the social security decision making system. Claimants are denied any due process from the beginning to the end of the process. Administrative protections that were fought for and defended in other contexts such as work place disputes or legal proceedings, are entirely absent from the social security decision making system. Basic protections such as timely and full disclosure of information, reasonable notice of proposed actions and legal recourse and remedies for those affected simply do not exist. Instead it’s a case of ‘punish first, investigate later’. Neither is there any consideration given to the impact of that pain and punishment on vulnerable claimants, who in many cases are having their last pennies taken from them, are forced to rely on foodbanks and whose physical and mental health are being severely affected.

For four years now the Right to Work: Right to Welfare campaign group ( R2W) made up of people who are unemployed, sick and disabled, has been campaigning to have these basic human rights protections, due process and impact assessment, incorporated into our social security decision making system. In that time they have succeeded in building huge support across society for their #PeoplesProposal. Their campaign is supported by the majority of district councils including Belfast City Council, by all political parties with the exception of the DUP, by major trade unions bodies including NIPSA who represents social security staff, and by the community and voluntary and advice sectors.

Yet still the Department for Communities refuses to act. It’s reason? The Permanent Secretary Leo O’Reilly says he can’t do anything that would move them outside of the existing regulatory framework. In the face of the violence and pain being inflicted on vulnerable people by the existing system this excuse from Leo sounds weak. It sounds even weaker when you learn that Scotland, which operates within the same regulatory framework, has recently succeeded in introducing a range of positive reforms, including the banning of all private companies from their social security system.

The current abuse of people’s human rights, happening in plain sight, cannot be allowed to continue. People who are already vulnerable, stressed and unwell, are being pushed to the edge. Too often they do not have the strength or voice themselves to fight against the cruelty of this pernicious system. They are depending on others to come together collectively to say to Leo O’Reilly and the Department for Communities that this violence must end. Join the Right to Work: Right to Welfare campaign and help ensure that those who are most in need of human rights protections are afforded them.

For more information contact Sean Brady PPR 90 313315 sean@pprproject.org or visit the website www.pprproject.org/right-to-work-right-to-welfare