Sixty year old, domestic violence and abuse survivor George Rolph suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He endures painful flashbacks and extreme levels of anxiety which make it hard for him to function in everyday life. Despite this, he was assessed as ‘fit to work’ by Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions and stripped of his benefits. George is now the 28th Day of a hunger strike to protest the cruelty of the government’s assault on the welfare state.
The Case of George Rolph
It is with some consideration that I cover the case of George Rolph. It would be irresponsible to encourage a man with known mental health issues to engage in a hunger strike, which is effectively a long, painful means of killing oneself. I also do not wish to encourage anyone else.
However, I have chosen to cover the story because the fact that in 21st century Britain, a member of one of our most vulnerable communities felt they had no choice but to take such a step, is worthy of hearing about. In other words, George deserves to be heard.
George Rolph stopped eating and drinking on 21st May after having his social security payments stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions. Like all other claimants, George had to endure the Atos Work Capability assessment. This computer based test sees disabled people, and the physically and mentally unwell, asked a string of questions which generate a score determining whether they will continue to receive their benefit payments or not. This test supersedes the determination of medical experts and the claimants own clinicians.
Despite severe depressive episodes, PTSD and attacks of anxiety which leave him in tears – George Rolph was designated Fit to Work and left with no access to financial support. Like all others who have lost their social security, he was told that it could take up to 8 months to appeal the decision, during which time he would not be eligible for state financial support.
He told the Mirror:
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay rent, I’m already behind with the gas and electric,” he says, quietly…I knew I was going to end up homeless. And I’m 60. I’m not going to make it out there…Then I thought if they’re going to put me out on the streets and make me homeless, if they’re going to kill me, well I’ll do it…I’ll be the one who decides where and when I die. I will go on a hunger and water strike.”
Seven days without water or food left George unable to stand up, lift his head, and unable to see properly. After strenuous efforts from his local MP Heidi Alexander, the DWP finally capitulated and sent a home assessor to George. His benefits were restored.
“I’d been told an appeal would take eight months to a year, but suddenly my benefits were reinstated until 2015.” He says.
At this point George chose to return to taking on fluids, but to continue his hunger strike on behalf of all those other victims of the Atos work capability assessment process.
“I can’t end this because of all the other lives the DWP has ruined,” he says. “People are taking their own lives.”
George has reached a particularly dangerous stage of his hunger strike now. He has been told by Doctors that he is unlikely to survive past 40-50 days. This means George could die in a little over a week, if the situation remains unchanged.
“I want to be very clear that I don’t want anyone else to do this, especially disabled people,” he says.
Dying to Work
The government’s own statistics show that between 2010 and 2011 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of losing their benefits after being assessed as ‘fit to work’ by Atos and the DWP. This is 204 people a week, or 29 people a day, dying of the illnesses and conditions that the government has dictated they are fit to work with. In their final weeks of life, these people were not being supported to focus their remaining time and energy on their loved ones, leaving the world in a state of peace. They were harassed by the Job Centre, late payment notices and threats of eviction as their social safety net was ripped away.
As this horrific figure, one person every hour, is almost too large to conceive of, here are some names among that number.
Linda Wootton, 49, was on 10 medications a day after a double lung and heart transplant. She was weak and suffered regular bouts of blackouts. She was put through the Atos Work Capability Assessment and as she lay in a hospital bed dying, she received confirmation she was ‘fit to work’. She died just nine days later. Her husband Peter said:
“I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own bodily fluids. It took half an hour for her to die; a woman who is apparently fit for work”.
Brian McArdle, 57, had been left paralysed down one side, blind in one eye, unable to speak properly and barely able to eat and dress himself after a stroke on Boxing Day 2011. Despite this, he was deemed ‘fit to work’ by Atos. He died of a heart attack the day after his benefit payments were stopped. His thirteen year old son Kieran told the Daily Record:
“Even though my dad had another stroke just days before his assessment, he was determined to go…He tried his best to walk and talk because he was a very proud man, but even an idiot could have seen my dad wasn’t fit for work.
Colin Traynor, 29, suffered from epilepsy. He was deemed ‘fit for work’ by Atos and forced to enter a lengthy, bureaucratic process to appeal the decision – during which his benefits would be frozen. He did not live to see the result of his appeal. Five weeks after his death, his family received the news that his appeal was successful. Too late for Colin. His father Ray said:
“I firmly believe – 100% believe – that the system this government introduced has killed my son.”
At the rate at which people are dying – these three people represent the death toll in just the last three hours. This is not just some occasional poor decisions, this is a Linda, a Brian, or a Colin, every two minutes, all day, every day, dying because this system is designed to throw people out of the social security system – whether they need it or not. 76% of those who appeal the Atos decisions have been found eligible for benefits, meaning that not only is this failure costing lives, but it is costing court time and public money. This has led to Citizens Advice arguing for Atos to face financial penalties for the computerised assessment delivering all these bad decisions.
Enough is Enough
Our tasks in life are often prioritised into important and urgent. Important things we respect but seldom do. Urgent things get done.
For most of us, social justice is important, but not urgent. We treat it like some theoretical issue; maybe we can attain it, maybe not. All too often we talk about the long game, and shrug our shoulders at the unfairness of it all. Some even argue there is no such thing as poverty in the UK, or that things are not really as bad as we would think.
This needs to stop. Now. This is not important, this is urgent. By the time you wake up tomorrow morning, more than two hundred others will have gone to sleep permanently after having their life lines cut by the government. George Rolph may well be one of them. It should not take the victims of these policies starving themselves to death to get our attention. But it did. Worse, most people are still not listening.
George Rolph should not have to threaten suicide before we turn off Britain’s Got Talent and start to give rat’s ass about each other. It is time for us to decide what kind of society we are. At the moment, we are choosing to be a society that shoots its wounded; a society that condemns its most vulnerable as shirkers, skivers and scroungers. In order to change it, we must change ourselves.
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