Laurie Penny: How could Labour have been so cruel?

It's because of the previous government that cancer patients are suffering additional pain

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Cancer patients are to be made to beg for their benefits. It sounds like a joke, doesn't it? After 18 months of cuts, austerity measures and scantily disguised attempts to punish the poor for the failings of the financial sector, somehow this Government still retains the power to shock. A report to ministers by Professor Malcolm Harrington, the government adviser on testing welfare recipients, contains proposals that those undergoing chemotherapy in hospital be forced to prove their unfitness for work before receiving the bare minimum of benefits required to live out what may be their final weeks in comfort. It may be one of the most monstrous minor outrages against human dignity ever enacted by a Labour government.

Yes, a Labour government. It seems to have escaped public notice that it was Labour that pioneered the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) system, requiring everyone in receipt of sickness benefits to negotiate a bureaucratic fun-house of forms, fit-for-work tests and bizarre inquisitions in remote buildings that may or may not be accessible by wheelchair. The Tories added their special brand of barbarity to the process, but by 2010 the damage was done – and cancer patients were not exempt from Labour's original proposals to placate the tabloids by pursuing "scroungers".

In three years of research and campaigning on the ESA, I have collected countless stories of pain and humiliation – the result of a policy administered by Atos Origin, the private company with a £300m contract giving them responsibility for the work capability tests. The man with crippling arthritis who was required to walk until he collapsed from pain. The girl with serious mental health difficulties who was made to strip to show her self-harm scars, and was thrown off benefits anyway. Mental health charities have informed the Government that the tests are already prompting suicides, and are likely to lead to more.

All this for a system with such a high failure rate that the appeals process costs the Exchequer tens of millions of pounds a year – and barely shaves anything from a benefit fraud bill already dwarfed by the cost of tax avoidance and evasion by the super-rich. Callousness and inefficiency: the demon offspring of the hell-marriage between pitiless Thatcherism and New Labour neuroticism.

It would be easy, at this point, to adopt the clichéd radical posture of throwing up your hands and declaring that all mainstream parties are the same. They are not all the same. There is, however, so little clear air between the welfare policies of this Government and the previous one that anyone who believes in a society that cares for the needy is left to feel their vote is being held hostage – by a party whose sole claim to electability seems to be that the Tories are worse.

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