Moving people off disability benefits is not the same as getting them into work

By Catherine Hale
January 9, 2016

Myself and other sick and disabled people choked on our mince pies as we got a foretaste recently of what the Tories have planned for us in 2016 from Conservative Home.

Matthew Oakley’s post was entitled Five Ways to Help Disabled People into Work. It trails the government’s White Paper on reforming ESA (the incapacity for work benefit), due early this year. It was the “help” bit that made us shudder. For the last five years the government’s version of supporting disabled people on ESA into work has entailed shaming and bullying us and sanctioning our benefits. I’ve experienced it myself, but so did most of the 500 or so participants in my research with Mind. 

Hounding people off benefits is one way of cutting welfare spending. But it’s not the same as getting us into work.

So Oakley’s first two ways of 'helping' made my heart sink. He talks of reforming the much maligned Work Capability Assessment in a way that appears to involve further reducing eligibility for ESA and extending conditionality to those with even more severe illness or impairment.

We’ve been here before. In the early 2000s Labour proposed that reclassifying one million people on incapacity benefit as Fit for Work with the introduction of ESA would magically remove all our barriers to entering the jobs market and make employers welcome us with open arms.

The end result of spending millions on continually retesting people, and on the privately contracted Work Programme, is that only around seven per cent of people with long term health conditions or disabilities have moved into work.

ESA reform failed ten years ago because it was based on the same prejudiced attitudes that Oakley invokes once more. It says that those of 'us' with health conditions or impairments are different to 'you', the chattering classes. We don’t have ambition for our lives, or strive to be the best we can. We don’t have the same desire to contribute and be rewarded for an honest day’s work. Therefore compulsion and punishment are the only way to get us to do the right thing and be more like you.

It is our very exclusion from the jobs market that fuels this kind of discrimination. Gender and racial discrimination reduced significantly once women and people from ethnic minorities began to enter public life and began to work inside the power structures that had oppressed them. Genuine equality may still be a long way off, but it is no longer acceptable to state or imply in public that black people are lazy or that women lack mettle. 

Yet it is still acceptable for the policy making elite to claim that disabled people, the last great Other, are so lacking in moral fibre that we need to be pushed into greater poverty and hardship for our own good. The likes of Oakley never have to stand shoulder to shoulder with us. And Tory cuts to support are leaving us even more trapped inside our homes, so the risk of them ever having to look us in the eye are getting ever smaller.

There is some acquired wisdom from Oakley to be grateful for. He spent enough time looking into the operation of benefit sanctions during his time on the Social Security Advisory Committee to conclude that they are not an effective tool for getting disabled people into work and that their operation is unfair.

If only he and his thinktank fellows spent more time actually talking to sick and disabled people who want to work they might learn something about the real life benefit traps that hold us back, not to mention the hostile jobs market of a profit driven economy. There are many perversities in the system that thwart our ambition. The classification of Fit/Unfit is not one of them.

The idea that tightening access to disability benefits is the way to get disabled people into work is a reinvention of the ten year old wheel that started the car crash we see around us today: An increase in suicides, and mental health problems, the explosion in the use of food banks.

Can the Conservatives really go further down this murderous road? As long as the British public still believes this has anything to do with halving the disability employment gap, they probably can.



©Catherine Hale is a researcher, writer and campaigner on disability issues. She blogs at Limited Capability.

* Ekklesia is currently researching alternatives to the work capability assessment. If you have experience of the WCA you can fill out the survey here. The easy read version is available here. Alternatively you can download the survey in one of the following formats:

For further information on the project and guidance notes  please see here.

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