Why 'more disabled people in work' may not necessarily be good news

By Bernadette Meaden
July 14, 2019

Recently Theresa May said that over 900,000 more disabled people were “in work as a result of what this government have done”. The casual listener could have been excused for thinking that 900,000 disabled people, previously unemployed but wanting to work, had found suitable jobs thanks to the government’s action to remove the significant barriers to employment they face. If that had been the case, Mrs May would have had something of which to be very proud. Sadly, this is not what has happened.

As a Channel Four fact check pointed out, “We assume she’s referring to the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, which shows the number of disabled people in employment rose by 930,000 in the five years to 2018.”

But a National Audit Office report from March 2019  says “The evidence indicates that [the rise in the number of disabled people in work] is likely to be due to more people already in work reporting a disability rather than more disabled people who were out of work, moving into work. It also makes clear that “the recent increases in the number of disabled people in work have not been matched by a reduction in the number of disabled people who are out of work”. This figure has “remained broadly the same at around 3.7 million” in the past five years.

So why are more people in work reporting a disability? It seems possible that one factor could be the rise of the State Pension Age (SPA). In 2010, women’s SPA was 60, men’s was 65. In 2011, the Coalition government decided that both men’s and women’s SPA should reach 66 by 2020. Consequently, there has been a rise in older people in employment. Most notably, between 2010 and 2018 there was an increase of 15 percentage points in the number of women aged 60-64 in employment. 

In the past, women who were still working in their early sixties and developed a health problem or a disability could simply retire with their state pension. Now, they now don’t have that option.

They can of course just leave their job anyway, but if they need to claim benefits, Citizens Advice warns, “You’ll need to show you had a good reason for resigning, or you might not get any money for around three months. This is called a sanction.”

They can apply for an out of work disability benefit, but the problems in that system are now notorious, with regular reports of people close to death being deemed ineligible.

Or, they can struggle on at work, perhaps in pain or feeling ill, with a very poor quality of life. Then, they may become one of Mrs May’s ‘extra disabled people in work’.

And, as always, the people most affected by this will not be the prosperous, with savings to fall back on, but those who are on low incomes, often in jobs that are physically demanding. Care workers, cleaners, people working in factories and kitchens. And tragically, because they are on low incomes and working so hard, they are much more likely than their more prosperous peers to become ill or disabled before they can receive their pension.

Most people are aware that in the UK there is a shocking difference in life expectancy between the poor and the rich. Ironically, the government’s justification for raising the state pension age was that life expectancy was rising. Well, yes it was - on average. But for women in the poorest areas, it is now actually falling. Between 2011 and 2016, life expectancy fell for women in the poorest 20 per cent of the country.

And what is less widely talked about, but is even more relevant to this issue, is the inequality in Disability Free Life Expectancy or Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE). Put simply, as well as having shorter lives than rich people, poor people also have many fewer years in good health.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, “The lowest HLE was observed in Blaenau Gwent in Wales for males (54.1 years) and in Nottingham for females (53.5 years). The gap in HLE between local areas stands at 21.5 years for females and 15.8 years for males.” 

It will be a cruel irony indeed if men and women who are really not well enough to work struggle on in employment for up to a decade because they feel they have no alternative, and the government claims those very people as ‘more disabled people in work’, and a mark of its success.

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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 

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.