Is harshness to sick, disabled and poor people increasing ‘welfare’ costs?

By Savi Hensman
June 20, 2014

Successive UK governments have made it harder for people in need to get social security, at a devastating human cost. Public services have also been cut, supposedly to save money. Might this have ended up costing taxpayers more?

Leaked documents suggest that Employment and Support Allowance costs are rising and the government may breach its own cap on ‘welfare’ spending, the BBC has reported. ESA replaced incapacity benefit for those unable to work because of sickness or disability.

People were forced to undergo ‘work capability assessments’, which have been widely condemned. Many people who were found ‘fit for work’, or placed on schemes to get them ready for employment, subsequently became very ill or died. Numerous others appealed successfully. Very few of those on the Work Programme ended up back in the workplace.

The Department for Work and Pensions denied that the cap might be breached. However it has a poor reputation for accuracy.

It turned out that many of the people reassessed “actually are quite ill or very disabled," stated Dame Anne Begg, chair of parliament’s work and pensions select committee. "That shouldn't have come as a surprise to the government, but perhaps it believed its own rhetoric when it's been talking about these large numbers of people who could be moved into work but haven't been.”

Continually reassessing people was also costly to the state, quite apart from the emotional toll on individuals and their families. “A big criticism of incapacity benefit was that people were put on it and left and nobody reassessed them. With the ESA there is constant reassessment, but that is expensive and it's putting a burden on the health assessors employed by Atos in order to keep up with the numbers," she said.

Yet it is hardly surprising that putting huge pressure on people with conditions such as heart disease and depression, threatening them with condemnation and destitution, maybe occasionally leaving them without money for food or heating, is likely in some instances to make their health worse.

Growing levels of poverty have made even more people ill. The link between social inequalities and ill health has long been known and was highlighted, for instance, in 'Fair Society Healthy Lives' (The Marmot Review) in 2010.

In June 2014, a major study of poverty and social exclusion in the UK led by the University of Bristol found that the percentage of households who fell below society’s minimum standard of living has risen from 14 per cent to 33 per cent over the last 30 years, despite the size of the economy doubling. One in three people cannot afford adequate heating in winter and four million children and adults are not properly fed.

If the government can further weaken trade unions and voluntary organisations combating poverty, as well as eroding protection for workers and forcing more people into insecure forms of employment such as zero-hour contracts, it may increase poverty further.

Cuts in health and social care have worsened the situation. For instance over half the councils which responded to a Young Minds freedom of information request admitted cutting funding for child and adolescent mental health services over the past five years, while numerous clinical commissioning groups are also paying less towards meeting young people’s mental health needs.

As well as intensifying suffering now, not providing urgently-needed help in a timely manner can store up trouble for the future.

It is increasingly clear that that the government’s austerity policies are less to do with reducing public spending than with undermining social security principles and belief in economic and social rights for all, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elsewhere.

For those who care about justice, it is important to keep questioning government claims that harsh treatment of chronically sick, disabled, unemployed and low-paid people is somehow in society’s interests.

© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.