Reforming welfare from a distance

By Bernadette Meaden
February 5, 2016

A young man I know, David, (not his real name) is heartbreakingly eager to work and has a mild learning disability. Since leaving school he has alternated between insecure work and benefits, always hoping that this job will be it, the one that lasts, the one where he eventually earns enough for a secure life without the need for benefits, and without the humiliation and sanctions that benefits now entail.

Late last year, David got an agency job as a labourer. After working outdoors in the pouring rain for several days, he was diagnosed with pleurisy, and took a couple of days off work. Frightened of losing the job, he returned too soon, collapsed, and an ambulance was called. As soon as he felt anything like capable of returning to work he phoned the agency and was told, "don't call us, we'll call you." He was 'unreliable'.

There are many, many people like David, struggling desperately to survive, whether it be on benefits or in low-paid insecure work, as our foodbanks can testify. But their lives and experiences seem to be a completely unknown world to people who devise policies for welfare reform and changes to the benefits system. This may explain the minimum seven week wait for a first payment of Universal Credit – the people who devised it, in secure well paid jobs, perhaps imagined that people like David have savings that they can live on for that period.

This detachment from the lives of people affected by welfare changes continues, with a new report from Reform, 'Working Welfare – a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits'. Indeed, it is so detached that Eve Jackson, Campaigns Officer  for Mencap tweeted, "No voices of disabled claimants in @reformthinktank #reformwelfare report. Lords report gives more authentic picture."

Reform's report calls for a single out of work benefit, to be the same for Jobseekers and disabled people alike. In effect, every claimant will be relabelled a Jobseeker. Reform says that the money disabled people lose would be replaced by an increase in Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This, at a time when hundreds of people a week are being reassessed and losing their entitlement to PIP, seems a very unconvincing prospect.

Whilst proposing changes that would, for better or worse, have a radical impact on the lives of disabled people, no disabled people seem to have been consulted or involved in the report. Some use is made of survey results. It is reported, for instance, that "around 83 per cent of ESA WRAG claimants surveyed agreed that the compulsory nature of work-focused interviews made them more likely to participate." Well, yes – the threat of being made destitute if you do not participate in something will probably make you more likely to participate. That's hardly proof that it is a good thing.

The report also cites the fact that when asked, most ESA claimants, even those in the Support Group, want to work. This, of course, is evidence that they are in fact just like the people doing the survey and writing the report. They want to work, and want to be well enough to work. It is not evidence that they are 'trapped' on ESA because the amount they are receiving is so generous it provides a 'perverse incentive' for them to remain ill. Nobody reliant on disability benefits is doing more than surviving in financial terms.

Sadly, the report also relies on the well-worn but false division between workers and shirkers, taxpayers and claimants, saying: "Striking the right balance between rights and responsibilities, conditionality and support is key to ensuring the welfare state remains legitimate in the eyes of those who fund it." This assumes that there are two classes of people, those who use the welfare state, and those who fund it through their taxes. This is simply untrue. People who pay tax receive benefits, and vice versa. A worker today can be run over by a bus tomorrow, and find themselves reliant on ESA.

What would be more likely to cause the welfare state to lose legitimacy would be statements like that made by Grant Shapps, who said that almost a million people had dropped claims to disability benefits to avoid being assessed. This was completely untrue, but the headlines it gathered planted a seed of suspicion in the minds of the public that half the people on disability benefits were probably faking it. That is the type of thing that causes the welfare state to lose its legitimacy, and it is something from which disabled people have never recovered.

What is most disappointing about the report is the view of ESA claimants it conveys, as if they are almost lesser people, with less pride, less self respect, and less motivation than people like 'us'. A paltry weekly sum is keeping them apathetic and unlikely to seek work. They aren't getting jobs, not because of ill health or disabilities, but because the lavish benefit they are living on has removed their incentive to work.

The fact that so many employers, including the DWP itself, sacks employees who become ill, is not considered as a factor. And if none of 'us' would forsake a career for £30 per week, why do we think 'they' would?

Sadly, it does appear that the House of Lords is more in touch with the realities of life for poor and disabled people than are the architects of welfare reform.


Further, more detailed responses to this report will follow from Ekklesia.


 * If these issues affect you and you are in distress, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are FREE and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.


© 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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