MSPs hear UK welfare reforms 'force blind man to beg'

From Democracy Live: Henry Sherlock spoke to the committee about his experiences

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MSPs have been told how a blind former health worker has been reduced to begging as a result of the UK government's welfare reforms.

Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee was taking evidence from disabled people about changes to benefits.

Henry Sherlock said: "I thought the days of the blind man begging with a cup on street corners were gone. Sadly, that is not the case."

The committee is looking at ways of limiting the impact of welfare reform.

MSPs also heard the benefits system described as a "Kafkaesque" machine that used "lies and misinformation" to deprive people of their benefits.

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."

A key part of the Welfare Reform Act is to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for eligible working age people with a Personal Independence Payment (PiP).

Under the changes, two million claimants will be reassessed in the next four years, with only those considered to be in need of support qualifying for the new payment.

Closing loopholes

Mr Sherlock also claimed he had been "harassed and bullied" by the Department of Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare, the private firm paid to carry out fit-to-work medical assessments.

Start Quote

I can honestly say that there are lies that go into that assessment”

End Quote Janice Scott Committee witness

He said: "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."

The committee also heard from Norman Gray, whose son Andrew has Asperger syndrome and works at a hotel.

Mr Gray said while he was in favour of rationalising the benefits system and closing as many loopholes as possible, he felt the proposals for DLA were " too rigid" and did not take into account the real needs of the individual.

The final witness was Janice Scott, whose 61-year-old husband was disabled by an accident and a stroke.

She told MSPs there seemed to be an Atos "ethos" of twisting assessments to cut benefits.

She added: "I can honestly say that there are lies that go into that assessment.

"I do shorthand and I took down word-for-word my husband's whole assessment and what actually came back was practically the opposite of everything he said. I've heard that from many other people as well."

Softening impact

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing said it was "disgusting" there was no discretion in the welfare system and called for an immediate rethink.

She said: "We're looking at a Kafkaesque approach to this issue and that is very dangerous for society indeed."

"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."

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We have made considerable improvements to the Work Capability Assessment to make it fairer and effective”

End Quote Spokesman Department for Work and Pensions

Committee convener, Labour MSP Michael McMahon, said: "It's almost as if they're deliberately using social norms against people.

"The idea that someone would get up and present themselves well is actually being used against them.

"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."

An Atos spokesperson said: "We understand that applying for benefits can be an emotional time which is why we work hard to make sure that service that we provide is as highly professional and compassionate as it can be.

"We do not make decisions on people's benefit entitlement or on welfare policy.

"The assessment carried out by our staff forms an important but single piece of information used by the DWP to make a decision on benefit entitlement."

The UK Department of Work and Pensions said the incapacity benefit system needed reform because it "wrote too many people off to a life on benefits".

A spokesman added: "We are committed to help thousands of people move from benefits and back into work if they are capable while giving unconditional support to those who need it, and we have made considerable improvements to the Work Capability Assessment to make it fairer and effective.

"If someone disagrees with the outcome of their Work Capability Assessment, they have the right to appeal."

Holyrood cannot block these welfare reforms as power over the benefits system is reserved to Westminster but MSPs recently passed new legislation aimed at softening the impact of the changes on devolved services like care and free school meals.

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