Today I had to go for a "medical assessment"
In the past there was a distinction drawn between being sick and being disabled: and the benefits were different dependng on which you were. But the new system does not recognise that: the whole thrust has been changed and that is described in "hurrah" terms which serve to disguise what is really happening. It is quite instructive to look at the process, I think.
As some of you know, I broke my shoulder some time ago. I did not know it was broken for some weeks and so I was not doing the right things: so it is taking a long time to heal and I am still in a lot of pain from it. So I can't work at my normal job, in particular because I can't drive. In my job I have to do a lot of mileage even after I get there: and most of the work is quite far from where I live as well. So that is pretty much ruled out, for now.
So I had to claim the new sickness benefit. I can't even remember what they call it at present, because they keep changing our benefits: every time they change them they make them worse: and they give them a new name.
So now I have been claiming this too long (about 3 months, I think). And so I have to have one of these medicals. Bear in mind that my GP has seen me regularly and thinks I cannot work, so he signs a certificate to say that each time I see him. The consultant at the hospital identified that it was broken and considered it will take weeks or months to get better: he gave me an appointment for December because he is not expecting great progress any sooner. I attend a physiotherapist fortnightly and she gives me daft exercises to do. She insists i keep taking a lot of painkillers cos I can't do these exercises without them: and they dont make me feel all that great actually. But hey ho.
None of these people are to be trusted it seems: Atos are the people who can determne whether I should get any benefit because of this. So Atos have to give me their test and that was today
The first thing that happens is they send you a letter. It tells you you have an appointment and where and when. In great big letters it tells you that if you fail to attend your benefit will stop. It also includes personalised directions for getting there. You might think that is a courtesy: but the directions are actually incomprehensible. They are only there so that if you turn up late you can be penalised and you cannot say you got lost, because they sent you directions. I very much doubt that would stick if you challlenged it because you had absolutely no chance of finding the place if you relied on them. There is also the subtle insult conveyed by the assumption that you cannot find your way to a street in the centre of your own city; and cannot lift the phone or look online or on a map if you don't happen to know where it is. That part is an ongoing theme of implied stupidity or incompetence that pervades the whole benefit system now. You are by definition an idiot or a fraud if you are looking for help from the state, and it shrieks out of everything they do.
My appointment was for 8:45 in the morning. That tells you something too. It tells you that the people who work there have crap jobs. Flexitime working is quite common now, and it is actually good in some ways if you don't work directly with the public: it gives at least some autonomy to the worker and that is associated with a little more job satisfaction. But if you work directly with the public flexitime does not work unless there are no appointments before the core hours start. So this is not flexitime. To understand the significance of that you have to know that he default hours in office jobs in the uk used to be 9-5. In factories and in manual jobs it was more often a shift pattern so you would work 6 am - 2pm; 2 -10; and a night shift would usually be 10-6. Factory workers had lower status and less security: though often higher pay. The structure of working class life was full of such distinctions and tradeoffs. They mattered to people. Regular and reasonable hours are part of what people aspire to: nobody really likes shifts and in the past they were not imposed unless there was a good reason for them. 24 hour factory prodcuction was one: hospital and emergency services were another. But what possible reason is there for opening this office before 9 am? It is not important in the scheme of things and so you would not fight about it: but it carries a subtle message for the workers there. It is also extremely inconvenient for the
public scroungers who are called to attend: schools here don't start till 9 am: so if you happen to have children to get out to school before you can go, you have to make special arrangements: which is just more low level harassment. I am aware that the patterns of work vary between countries and so that will not perhaps seem important to many here: but it is important for the messages it sends both to the workers and to the client group.
Anyway I got there, and with my letter, as instructed. And with my "form of ID" to prove who I am. Once again you have to understand the implications of that. People in this country are deeply opposed to carrying ID. That may not make sense to you if you are from a country where it is taken for granted. But take my word for it it is not ok here. Successive governments have been determinedly trying to introduce universal ID for decades: with a different excuse every time. It has been resisted and they have not succeeded yet: but they are making ID of some form a requirement for all services: eventually it is going to be such a hassle the resistance will melt in face of the nuisance value. So I had to take ID with me. Remember, they wrote to me: with my details and in the full knowledge that I had already been required to prove who I am when I made the claim in the first place. I suppose they imagine that I can make a fraudulent claim with the collusion of the GP, and the consultant, and the physiotherapist: and then capture someone who really has got a broken shoulder, and who is of similar age, and the same gender, off the street and talk them into going along in my place when they call me for a medical. Happens all the time, I am sure. And a person who could do all that could NEVER go the extra mile and get a false form of ID for that random broken shouldered person, now could they?
So I get there and hand in my letter at the desk to a woman in a really policey uniform who is sitting in the foyer. And I show her my id and she writes down what it is with the number. She tells me to go to the second floor and so I do.
On the second floor there is a desk with three blokes behind it: and a waiting area with a lot of chairs. And on our side of the desk is a "guy in a suit". The "guy in a suit" is hampering the guys behind the desk. They are seeing folk as they arrive and there is not much delay, so folk are standing in a small queue: it is what brits do: we form queues. And the queue is obvious since the end of it is just inside the door. I am a brit so I see a queue and I join it. But "guy in a suit" is trying to hand out tickets and make folk sit down and wait for their number to be called. And "guy in a suit" is on the other side of the room. So everytime someone comes in they join this obstinate queue: and "guy in a suit" walks through the folk who are standing there and gives the last person a ticket and tells them to sit down. So they do. But while they are doing it one of the three guys comes free. Not everybody has a ticket, cos of all the confusion: so the bloke behind the counter doesn't call out a number: he just looks at the person on our side who is closest and smiles: then "guy in a suit" gets in everybody's way again while he goes over to tell the bloke behind the counter that he should call out a number. So the bloke behind the counter apologises to the applicant he just started to deal with, and he calls out a number: and someone else goes up to start the process. And the guy who just came in gets a ticket. There is nothing to indicate a ticketing system is in place: no machine to get one from, for example. In any case supermaket deli counters tried this system here a long time ago: they abandoned it for some reason, and quite quickly. That is because it does not work and people don't like it. But why would that stop these clowns: it is another subtly dehumanising move IMO. But mostly it doesn't work.
So I get a ticket and before I can sit down my numbe is called: and I go to the desk. The man at the desk has three jobs. He has to fill in a form with he details of my ID and get me to sign it. He has to walk to the other side of the room and lift my file from the cupboard. And he has to ask me if I have incurred any cost getting there. In the past, given the poverty level of benefits in payment, expenses were handed over then and there: we are talking busfares here, people! But not anymore. Now they will pay them into your bank if you have your bank details with you. They never said that you should bring them, mind. Otherwise they will send you a giro (which is a kind of check). So for the princely sum of £2.40 they incur what cost for reimbusement? And this makes sense, how, exactly? Folk can't afford to lay out money (which will never be a lot but may be quite a bit higher than mine) then wait for reimbursement: and which master criminal is going to hold up this office for what amounts to petty cash? But again it serves to cause some hassle and to humiliate those who are genuinely struggling in poverty and for whome the outlay is a real difficulty. Who wants to have to make a fuss about a couple of quid? It is embarrassing.
Anyway we get through all of that and then I sit down in another part of the room: and wait. I want a drink of water, but although there is a water cooler there is no water in it. Replacement water is sitting just beside it. But it is not "guy in a suit's " job to swop them, presumably. So I forget that and sit down again. And wait. Not too long. Then one of the blokes behind the counter gets a change of scene, which is nice for him. He gets to come out from behind the counter with my file and two others. He calls our names (note the number is no longer in play cos we have proved who we are, or for some other reason) and sets off like the pied piper with us in tow. To the lift and back to the ground floor: where we get put in another waiting room.
One of the things I notice in this room is there are people who are there for their medical, like me: maybe 10 of us. And oddly enough two of the three blokes who were behind the counter upstairs are there too. They are sitting on the same seats as we are: the seats are in rows. And one of them is reading the paper and the other is texting. They are on their break! In the waiting room with the rest of us. Perhaps they really like our company? Or just maybe they don't have a break room. In every job I know that involves dealing with the public the staff need some time out in a private place where they can swear about the customers or let off steam about the boss. But not in this place: they are basically still working while on their break: cos they are still on show.
Eventually I get called in for the medical. The lady is a doctor ( the ones doing these medicals are described as "health care professionals", so they are not all doctors: they can be nurses and I don't know what else. ). She is Spanish as it happens. Very smiley. She takes me into a room and sits me at a desk so that she is nearer the door than I am: well that makes sense. I might attack her. I do that myself when I am working, if I remember.
She has a computer and she goes through her list of questions. No surprises there: I know what they are and what they are about. Basically the rules are that if I am less disabled than Stephen Hawkins I am not going to get benefit. It is stilll an insult." How did I get here today?". means: If you have walked more than 200 metres you get no points for mobility and if I ask you that directly you might lie: so I will do it obliquely and since you don't know the significance of what I am asking you will chat and tell me you fail this test in the course of that. It is all like that. There is no explanation of what the rules are, or what you have to establish: it is deeply dishonest. But I only know that cos of my job: most folk don't. This process takes about 20 minutes.
She then gives me a couple of things to try and do with my arms: and that takes about 2 minutes: cos the actual pain and stuff is irrelevant cos I have already failed the questions: not her fault: you really need to be profoundly disabled to pass this test and I am not.
And we are done. At the end I asked here why she was doing such an unrewarding job, given she is a doctor and trained for years. She told me that she prefers to spend time with her children and the hours suit her. Fair enough: but is this really a good way to use all that training and expertise? I don't think so