The headline in the Guardian is scary enough, "Disabled benefits claimants face £71 a week fines for breaching work plan", while the Daily Telegraph descends to the vile levels of the Hate Mail with "Fines for workshy sickness benefit claimants to double", but the reality for disabled people may be scarier still. The basic rate of ESA is a little over £96 a week (assuming you haven't hit time-limiting and are getting nothing whatsoever), a £71 or 70% fine for a perceived refusal to comply with a work plan would leave you trying to survive on around £25 a week.
I've claimed both JSA and ESA in the past, and I'm currently claiming neither and living on my rapidly evaporating savings because of the damage both of those, but in particular the ATOS-run WCA test for ESA, have done to my health. Having entered the process with a physical disability I now face panic attacks any time I try to deal with official, or potentially official, mail. What that means in the context of these latest headlines is that I have actually been through the process of setting up a work plan, and that is what worries me.
When I started to claim JSA I insisted that I needed to speak to one of the Job Centre Plus Disability Employment Advisors. Having explained to her that I had just been made redundant from a cutting-edge job as a specialist engineer working on the development of the flight control system for the Eurofighter, she immediately started advocating that I apply for minimum wage positions, and then admitted that she did not think there was any likelihood of being able to find work (bear in mind that this was before the financial crash and the massive worsening of employment prospects). After a couple more sessions, when she realised that whatever help she could offer I had already done at a far higher level, she washed her hands of me and threw me back into the pool with their non-specialist advisors.
As part of this process I had to agree to a Job Seeker's Contract, but the problem was that the contract bore little relation to reality. As a specialist engineer my employment prospects are overwhelmingly through specialist recruitment agencies working online, and it was only in looking for a job in my own speciality that I was likely to find an employer willing to live with the extent of my disability. Trying to insist that I went through the local paper looking for any opportunity whatsoever simply failed to grasp the reality of my disability. And where I did specify precise limitations that my disability imposed, a disturbing process took place. When I told the advisor that I struggled to manage the 15 minute commute to my previous employer, she noted "Well, in that case we won't require you to look at jobs more than 30 minutes from home." And each time that I signed on, whichever advisor I saw would try to force me to accept an extension of that commute radius to an hour, four times further than a distance I was already struggling to manage.
I was sent to see a succession of executive and disability employment advisors working on JCP contracts, the same people who will now be executing workfare contracts under the Work Programme. Each took one look at the combination of my abilities, and my disability, and panicked. The only possible match for my needs any of them could suggest was as a researcher in higher education, yet only because I had been the one who introduced that possibility, and my health hasn't been good enough to pursue the advanced degree I would need. Faced with an attempt by JCP to force me onto an utterly inappropriate programme, which even the workfare provider running admitted was utterly inappropriate, I had to lodge a complaint with the Minister for Disabled People (though fortunately not the current incumbent!), which resulted in JCP admitting that they 'had lost sight of my disability'.
And these people who 'had lost sight of my disability' are the people that IDS wants to be able to levy £71/week fines on disabled people for any perceived deviation from the work plan. A work plan that will soon include the potential for a disabled person to be forced onto unlimited duration work experience. Yet, even after my ministerial complaint, JCP was still trying to send me to training providers with completely inaccessible premises (what makes this worse is that these providers were the disability specialist providers, not general ones).
If I am to have any hope of working (and I don't believe I am currently well enough for that to be a possibility), then I will need to work from the prone position, taking breaks as required, and with a schedule to suit myself. Any position will be absolutely dependent on the employer and the Access to Work programme providing a suitable workstation to accommodate my needs, and somehow I don't see that being a priority with a workfare contractor. Placing myself in the hands of JCP or sub-contracted advisors truly scares me, my experience has shown me that my health is in danger from the depth of their ignorance, yet that ignorance is now to be backed by overwhelmingly punitive powers with no pretence of due process.
As a friend of mine noted when looking at this headline 'people will die.'