Social security and the hostile environment for disabled people

By Bernadette Meaden
March 10, 2020

Some time ago I went to the birthday party of a woman I’ll call Ellen. Ellen spent much of her working life at what is now known as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but which had various incarnations during her career. Ellen has a big family who now live in various locations, but all returned home for the celebration. At the party her son said that when out and about in the town, he and his siblings had been stopped by people speaking fondly and with gratitude of their Mum’s work, decades after she had retired.

In this not very prosperous northern town, numerous people, when they fell on hard times, had found Ellen to be compassionate and sympathetic to their situations. Pulling out all the stops to make sure they got every bit of help they were entitled to, she made difficult circumstances more bearable. Ellen’s work at what is now known as the DWP had no doubt saved marriages, saved families, saved homes. Social security provided in such a supportive and respectful way can be a kind of glue which holds lives and communities together.

Contrast this with the ongoing revelations about our current social security system, from the tragic death of Errol Graham to the latest Panorama programme, (view here) in which a leading disability discrimination lawyer said that evidence of how the Department for Work and Pensions treats its own disabled employees suggests that there is, “something quite fundamentally, systemically wrong within the culture of the organisation”.  

Panorama’s exposure of a hostile environment towards disabled people, whether employees or claimants, was shocking, but we shouldn’t really be surprised. People employed by the DWP are members of society, and when society has been persuaded, by politicians and tabloid newspapers wrongly suggesting that large numbers of people are faking a disability, or pretending to be sick when they are really just workshy, it’s hardly surprising that they will to some extent be influenced by that propaganda. Politicians with a lack of understanding or respect for people reliant on social security have made a big impact on our culture. They have redesigned the benefits system, via welfare reform, to give it an intense focus on getting people into work, with little consideration for those unable to work or facing significant barriers to employment.

Before Errol Graham starved to death in his home, he wrote a letter asking the DWP to judge him fairly. He wrote, “On a good day I open my curtains, but mostly they stay shut…It’s not nice living this way.” When I read this I immediately thought of George Osborne. In 2012, the then Chancellor justified cutting the top tax rate whilst cutting benefits, and told the Today programme, “it is a 'delusion' to think that taxes on the rich will solve the problem. It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits." Here we have the austerity Chancellor, who helped make the rich richer, scapegoating people on benefits, implying they were a cause of our financial problems, and stirring up resentment towards them – all in the space of two sentences. Thus was empathy towards disabled people gradually eroded, suspicion and resentment fuelled.

When we consider that these were the attitudes of the people behind welfare reform, it is hardly surprising that today Advice NI has highlighted ‘serious systemic failures’   in Universal Credit, compounded by an extremely unhelpful approach epitomised by the phrase, “the onus is on the claimant”.

Of course many DWP staff will still be trying to maintain empathy and compassion, but they are now working within a system which often seems designed to make it impossible. As one claimant from Northern Ireland said, “It was obvious that those implementing the system are feeling the pressure too, as we witnessed everything from stress to bewilderment to utter confusion. While some staff were understanding and supportive their hands were tied with contradictory and confusing red tape obviously designed to make things more difficult.”

Universal Credit, despite the claims of its supporters, is a highly complex system. Many claimants will encounter it at the lowest point in their lives. And yet, Advice NI reports that in some circumstances the DWP expects claimants to know the intricacies of the system to such an extent that they will ask for a specific obscure regulation to be applied to their case. The DWP staff dealing with their claim will know it should be applied, but if the claimant doesn’t ask, it won’t be, meaning the claimant may lose money or even have their claim closed, leaving them with zero income. It is hard to overstate the harm this can cause.  

As Kevin Higgins of Advice NI says, “The Department continues to take the view that ‘the onus is on the claimant’…To me it is not good enough that Universal Credit staff do not act on this knowledge, to provide the best possible service for these vulnerable, sick and disabled people.” In these cases, all that is needed to make life easier for people is for DWP staff to act on information they possess – but, ‘the onus is on the claimant’.

This chimes with the experience of Neil Carpenter, who works as an advocate for people with a learning disability. In a new article for the Centre for Welfare Reform he says, “I have worked through benefits applications and appeals with a number of adults who have a learning disability. For them – and I suspect it is the same for other people applying for benefits – a series of hurdles is currently created that appears designed to trip them up rather than meet their needs.”

So many of the problems currently making life desperately hard for disabled people could be solved overnight, if the political will was there. Take the ongoing campaign by the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA), to get the DWP to scrap the six months rule. This rule means that if a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness like MND, but they can’t provide evidence that they will die within six months, they cannot be fast-tracked for benefits, and have to go through the stressful and demanding application and assessment procedure. The MNDA recently said, “We met again with Justin Tomlinson MP in late January 2020, where we stressed the need for the review to make progress as quickly as possible and deliver tangible change to ensure that everyone affected by terminal illness can benefit from the fast-track process.”

The obvious question here is – why the need for a review? Surely the Minister, or anyone else, can grasp that a person diagnosed with a terminal illness like motor neurone disease has an irrefutable case for receiving support when they request it. How can anyone be ‘not terminally ill enough?’

Similarly with the five week wait for a first payment of Universal Credit, which is causing so much poverty, debt and distress. Organisations like the Trussell Trust have called for this to end, providing extensive evidence of the harm it is causing, but to no avail.  Why do Ministers allow this harm to continue, when it could so easily be stopped?

The Department for Work and Pensions has enormous power over the lives and wellbeing of people who are already coping with poverty, illness and disability, but there seems to be no appreciation of this, or accountability for it. Ministers have the power, now, to easily make changes which would improve the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK. We should all be asking, and asking repeatedly until we get a proper answer – why don’t they?


© 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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