The UK government’s ‘work capability assessment’ for sick and disabled people has been revealed to be blatantly unfair, and decisions are frequently overturned on appeal.
But even those found to be currently unfit for employment, though with some possibility of work in the future, may face hefty fines if they are unable or unwilling to take part in work-related activities such as training or work placements.
From December, £71 may be slashed from an employment and support allowance of up to £99.15. Those affected may include terminally ill people estimated to have more than six months to live, stroke survivors, cancer patients undergoing treatments such as radiotherapy, people with chronic conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and those with worsening neurological diseases who have had to give up their jobs. Those with impairments such as autism may also be left with just £28.15 if they are cannot understand or follow the instructions of job advisors or cope with an unfamiliar environment.
Obviously, employment-related support schemes are helpful to some, and should be on offer – but the drastic cut, which would leave many people having to choose between food and heating, is clearly aimed at those who would otherwise fail to take part or drop out.
The plans have been widely criticised as harsh and unjust, especially since some of those affected have paid into National Insurance schemes for decades or contributed to society in other ways. If the real purpose were rehabilitation for those who might be able to get back to work, such measures would be counter-productive too. Carefully planned therapy under medical advice, combined with periods of rest, might be required for, say, someone badly hurt in an accident to get better, not a demand to undertake activities that might damage recovery.
Yet the government might reckon that the move would release extra money to enable further tax cuts or other perks for the super-rich, whom they see as more deserving, and win favour with voters, many of whom believe state and media rhetoric about ‘scroungers’ and favour harsh treatment of welfare benefit claimants. However, this might backfire.
A minority of those forced into work-related activities which they would otherwise have avoided might be able to cope, especially if training providers or managers were sympathetic.
Another set would probably drop out and be supported by their families, a financial gain for the Treasury but which might cost the government votes. Still others who lost most of their allowance, could no longer afford the necessities of life and as a result died, whether by natural causes or suicide, would again represent a financial gain – except that some of those affected would be parents or carers, so that local authorities would have to find ways of supporting those left behind. But that, too, could prove politically costly. Patients who dragged themselves to their placements while feeling terrible, and were taken severely ill or died there, might prove even more of a vote-loser.
Yet other costs might rise as those who previously would have been able to cope in community settings were kept or placed in institutions by health or social care professionals to ensure their wellbeing and survival. Those who might have been discharged from hospital to undergo community-based rehabilitation after illness or injury might be kept in longer, mental health patients at risk might be admitted as voluntary inpatients or sectioned, disabled people placed in care homes if they could not live independently and safely on £28.15 a week. This could prove hugely expensive overall, and politically embarrassing.
Even if the government cares little about the humanitarian cost of a work-or-starve policy for some of the sickest people in the country, or about the impact on human rights, it might wish to consider the financial and political cost, and rethink its plans.
(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.