George Osborne, the Budget, and the truth about ESA

By Bernadette Meaden
July 13, 2015

When announcing a huge cut to Employment Support Allowance in his budget speech, George Osborne managed to pack so much that was misleading into only six sentences, it really merits some close analysis.

Mr. Osborne said: "The Employment and Support Allowance was supposed to end some of the perverse incentives in the old Incapacity Benefit. Instead it has introduced new ones.

"One of these is that those who are placed in the work-related activity group [WRAG] receive more money a week than those on Job Seekers Allowance, but get nothing like the help to find suitable employment.

"The number of JSA claimants has fallen by 700,000 since 2010, whilst the number of incapacity benefits claimants has fallen by just 90,000. This is despite 61% of claimants in the ESA WRAG benefit saying they want to work.

"For future claimants only, we will align the ESA Work-Related Activity Group rate with the rate of Job Seekers Allowance."

Let's unpick that, sentence by sentence.

Firstly, consider the 'perverse incentives' in the old Incapacity Benefit. This refers to the firmly held belief amongst welfare reformers that a large proportion of the people on Incapacity Benefit were in fact simply avoiding work and enjoying a better income than they would get from unemployment benfit. Publicly they were spoken of as 'trapped' or 'languishing', privately the talk was of 'malingering and illness deception.'

If this had been true, the introduction of the very rigorous Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and the reassessment of all claimants would have resulted in large numbers of people being found fit to work, and claimant numbers dropping dramatically. This was what the welfare reformers predicted, but it just hasn't happened. It hasn't happened because actually, the vast majority of people receiving Incapacity Benefit were unfit to work, as their doctors had said.

Mr. Osborne then claims that whilst people placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) get more money than those on Jobseekers Allowance, they aren't getting jobs. There is a good reason for this. They are not fit to work.

People assessed for ESA and found fit to work must claim Jobseekers Allowance. Those who are placed in WRAG rather than the Support Group are officially considered unfit to work at present, but capable of returning to work at some time in the future. So it's hardly surprising that people in the WRAG are not going out and getting jobs at the same rate as those on Jobseekers Allowance.

It's important here to acknowledge just what people in the WRAG may be experiencing. They may be undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or other gruelling treatments. They may have Parkinson's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Cystic Fibrosis or other serious illnesses. They may have been suddenly disabled in an accident. Their top priority will be coping with their illness, or trying to adapt to a life that has suddenly become very difficult. They may be making frequent and expensive trips to hospital. To suggest that they are not trying hard enough to get better because they're enjoying the luxury of an extra £30 per week is incredibly patronising and insulting.

As for the 61 per cent who say they want to work – of course they do. They want to get better and be well enough to work. The other 39 per cent are probably so overwhelmed by their illness or disability that they can't imagine working at the moment. That is why they are on ESA, not Jobseekers Allowance.

Another little known fact about the WRAG is that if you receive ESA as a contribution-based benefit, (because you have been forced to give up work, and are up to date with National Insurance contributions) you can only get ESA for 365 days. The only way you can get it after that is if you are eligible for the means-tested version. If you have a partner who works, you won't qualify unless they have an extremely low income. So it's hardly a passport to a cushy lifestyle.

As with many welfare reform and austerity policies, the government has been assisted in making this cruel cut seem reasonable by allowing a false belief to flourish in the media and the public consciousness.

The BBC's Nick Robinson claimed that people in the WRAG were fit to work, in accordance with the implication in the Chancellor's speech. He withdrew this when corrected, but it was too late for many people. I had a protracted conversation on social media with a man who was at pains to educate me, saying "You know that they will have been assessed as fit to work, right?" He then insisted that WRAG was the 'work ready' group.

It's true that ESA is a complicated benefit (too complicated) and there's no reason why everybody should understand the details. But when a government implies that people who are ill or disabled should in fact be getting jobs and are choosing not to for a little extra money, they are further fuelling resentment and suspicion towards people who may be going through the worst time of their lives.


© 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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