Christina Patterson: There's a lesson for IDS in my sister's story

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

'I say to those watching today," said Iain Duncan Smith, "who are genuinely sick, disabled or are retired. You have nothing to fear."

When he said this, at the Tory party conference in the autumn, and looked us (or at least the camera) in the eye, I felt a tear spring into mine. "We will," he continued, "crack down on fraud and help able people off welfare. This means we will have enough resources to provide peace of mind."

What I thought when I watched him was that this was a good man. This was a man who had spent time with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and who wanted to make their lives better. He knew that he couldn't make disabled people sprightly, or ill people well. But he knew that if he could offer people some kind of assurance, that the small crutch that the state offered wouldn't be snatched away, then it might go some small way to counter the short straw that life's lottery had allotted.

The trouble is, he was wrong. The "work capability assessment", which has been introduced in parts of the country to test the fitness of disabled people for work, has been described by the man who helped to design it as "a complete mess". In Burnley this week, MPs from the work and pensions select committee heard from people who had undergone the assessment (which will be "rolled out" nationally at the end of this month) and who had, in spite of often crippling disabilities, been pronounced fighting fit. A man with MS explained that he had been given zero points. So did the husband of a woman with a serious mental illness. The minimum required for the new employment support allowance is 15.

So far, 30 per cent of the people who were previously regarded as eligible for incapacity benefit have been found fit for work. Paul Hogarth from Burnley Citizens Advice Bureau has said that 80 per cent of the people they've supported in tribunals have had the assessor's decision overturned. Those who don't make it to tribunal (at considerable cost to the taxpayer) or who don't get the assessor's decision overturned will see their benefits cut by £25 a week. The reform, if you can call something that makes often severely disabled people about 25 per cent poorer a reform, is expected to save the Government £1bn over five years.

We've all heard the stories of people who hobble to the dole office, like wounded soldiers finding superhuman strength to rush to the help of fallen comrades, who then pop up on YouTube doing acrobatics or ballroom dancing. If you believed some papers, you'd think that most of the people who claim incapacity benefit in this country should be competing in the Olympics, or at least for walk-on parts in The Bill.

And there does seem to be some evidence of a tacit policy, introduced under Margaret Thatcher, and continued under New Labour, to encourage people, particularly in working-class communities where there isn't much work, to go "on the sick", in order to keep unemployment figures down. But the assumption that most people on invalidity benefit prefer to live on £91 a week than do the kinds of things that might make them feel like a normal, functioning, valued member of society is so offensive that it literally takes the breath away.

If the people who do the assessments (often, according to reports, without even looking at the person they're assessing) and who work their way through a computerised questionnaire which asks people whether they can sit down, stand up, or brush their teeth, and if they say yes seem to think that means they can be parachuted into the nearest factory or office, won't listen to the disabled people, or assume that they're lying, perhaps they'll listen to their relatives.

My sister had her first breakdown when she was 14. She managed, through years of struggle, and while on anti-psychotic medication that made her speech slurred and her mind dull, and through taking, and retaking, exams she kept failing while her siblings got straight As, and by staying on in a sixth form where everyone else was doing A-levels, to scrape four O-levels and two CSEs.

She managed, after a couple of years at a secretarial college, to learn to type. She managed to get a job, in the typing pool of an insurance company, where she was, according to the reference they gave her, "a conscientious and loyal employee". My sister was certainly conscientious. She was prouder of that job than anything that had ever happened to her. The only problem was that she was extremely slow.

After three years, she got the sack. It took 18 months, and dozens of application forms, to get another job. This time, since the world didn't seem to need slow typists, it was as a sales assistant in a shoe shop. My sister loved it. She failed her probationary period.

Six months later, she got a two-month stint of work experience as a sales assistant at M&S. The work experience was part of a scheme to help disabled people into work. But not, alas, to keep them. My mother begged the store to keep her on. They refused.

It took six years for my sister to get another job. This time, it was as a part-time cleaner in a canteen. She worked hard, and she loved it. After a year, they asked her to resign.

I don't think I've ever met anyone who tried harder to get a job. I don't think I've ever met anyone who wanted a job more. But employers – even nice, well-meaning employers in a world less cut-throat and slower than ours now – didn't, and don't, just want people who try. They want people who can do the job, and do it well.

When my sister finally gave up the struggle to get, and keep, jobs that nobody seemed to want her to have, she was happier. She was happier without the stress of constantly trying, and constantly being told that she had failed. She lived modestly, and was grateful for her benefits. And I, Mr Duncan Smith, am grateful that she could get them without being told by a computer that would, I'm sure, have given her a score of zero, that she was "work shy".

When she died, and we went to register her death, there was a box marked "occupation". It was 18 years since she'd worked in an office. My father paused, and then put "typist".

Why our fat cats just aren't fat enough

Britain is terrible at an awful lot of things, but now it seems there's something else. We are, according to a man called Steve Forbes, very bad at producing fat cats. Our rich people are, apparently, starving waifs and strays when set against their plump and healthy counterparts around the world and across the pond.

Steve Forbes is, of course, the publisher of Forbes, that annual battle cry to economic revolution. The battle cry, repeated this year, is for bigger gaps between rich and poor. "You are making sure," said Forbes, wagging his, er, finger, at Britain's dangerously Marxist Government, "you only have a few people who make it into that bracket because of the policies you are pursuing." What we need to do – apart, perhaps, from culling the low-wage losers who are clogging up the country – is get rid of the "ridiculous" 50 per cent tax rate for top earners.

It's true that, in the absence of a Carlos Slim, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, our pickings at the table of the rich can seem a little bit, well, slim. The Tchenguiz brothers, for example, who have, unfortunately, just been arrested as part of an international fraud investigation into the collapse of an Icelandic bank, are only worth a few billion. Philip Green looks a bit more promising, though you can't help worrying that he won't have enough to live on after all he's passed on to his wife.

Our rich may not be really, really rich, but they are such sweethearts. Just think of Bob Diamond, who went out of his way to explain to the rest of us the rules about banking and remorse. Or Fred the Shred. Who has, by the way, just got a superinjunction to stop him being called a banker. But perhaps he can't spell.

A moment of joy in a (slightly dull) week of women

It's very nice, of course, that there's a special day to celebrate the existence of half the world's population, a day which this year appears to have extended into an entire week. It's nice, I suppose, that newspapers put together lists of successful women (much shorter, on the whole, than lists of male billionaires) where TV presenters can nestle next to world leaders and pop stars who wear light bulbs. To me, it all slightly has the air of Dr Johnson saying that a woman preaching was like a dog "walking on its hind legs"; that it is not "done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all".

But it would take a real Grumpy Old Woman not to be cheered by the news that half the permanent secretaries (that's secretaries as in top dog, not as in "take a letter, Miss Moneypenny") in the civil service are now women. It isn't that long since women had to resign from the civil service when they got engaged. If the engagements fell through, and the women begged to come back, their letters were put in a file marked "disappointed fiancées". And we worry about employers and Facebook.