Punishing disabled people to make reality match a flawed theory?

By Bernadette Meaden
July 5, 2015

In the New Statesman, 25-year-old Rosie Fletcher recently wrote, "Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in. This isn’t some kind of elaborate con I’ve been running … Cutting my benefits won't get me back into work. It will make my life smaller, more stressful. It will make me sicker."

This was in response to a suggestion by Charlotte Pickles on the Conservative Home website. Ms Pickles, who is former Policy Director at The Centre for Social Justice founded by Iain Duncan Smith, and was an Expert Adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in government wrote, "Addressing the £14 billion cost of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) means reducing the 2.4 million caseload. That requires a radical overhaul of the benefit. The Government should start by reducing the rate of the Work Related Activity Group within ESA to that of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Set 40 per cent higher than JSA, it is incentivising people to ‘fail’ the Work Capability Assessment."

It's difficult to express just how hurtful this is to anyone who is sick or disabled, or who has a loved one in that position. The 'incentive' Ms Pickles refers to is around £30 per week. Are large numbers of people going to the considerable trouble of faking or exaggerating an illness or disability for £30 a week? People in this group include cancer patients, people with heart failure and people seriously injured in accidents.

When the Work Capability Assessment was extended to all claimants, ministers confidently predicted it would lead to a huge fall in the caseload Ms Pickles refers to. The rigorous process would weed out the malingerers, which they believed existed in large numbers. Frequent references were made to people 'parked' and 'languishing' on sickness and disability benefits. Many were fit to work but had simply stopped trying, the reformers implied.

However, with over five million assessments having been carried out, at great cost to the taxpayer and great stress to sick and disabled people, the numbers of claimants have not changed significantly. The latest figures available from the DWP for the outcomes of reassessments of existing claimants show:

- 95 per cent of claimants were entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.

- Within this, 7 per cent of claimants were placed in the Work Related Activity Group

- 88 per cent of claimants were placed in the Support Group; and

- 5 per cent of claimants were assessed as Fit for Work.

This completely undermines the fundamental assumption underlying welfare reform relating to sick and disabled people. The vast majority of those who claim out of work benefits do so because they have no other choice. Having been rigorously assessed, they have been found unfit to work.

And to put this debate in context, let's consider a couple of pertinent facts.

The latest poverty figures showed that the number of people in 'disabled households' who were living in 'absolute poverty' rose by a shocking 300,000 in one year. Thirty per cent of households where there is at least one disabled member are now living in poverty.

In a recent study of out of work disability benefits, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said, "Public spending forecasts for these disability benefits in 2018–2019 project them to be at their lowest level as a share of national income since the late 1960s."

One would have hoped that a rise in absolute poverty for disabled people of 10 per cent in just one year would have made advocates of welfare reform stop and wonder if they had got anything wrong. But apparently not. Some people still seem to think we're being too soft on people who are ill or disabled.

It is increasingly evident that the welfare reform theories which have had such an impact on our welfare state have been based on flawed assumptions and a sadly low opinion of our fellow citizens. When reality fails to comply with the theories, then reality is deemed to be at fault, and the proposed solution is that the people who are living that reality are punished again.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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