IT IS the Conservative way to frame structural and economic problems as a failure of individuals. This allows the rich and powerful to abdicate responsibility, whilst all the pressure and blame is placed on people who have neither money nor power, and very little control over their circumstances.
In the real world, nobody would choose to exist on benefits which fall far short of covering life’s essentials. But in Conservative world, destitution can be a lifestyle choice, so the government is proposing to make a benefits system already linked to multiple deaths even harsher.
It is indeed a fact that record numbers of people are now out of work due to illness or disability. But the suggestion that this is because those people don’t want to work, or haven’t tried hard enough to get a job, is cruel and insulting. More realistic explanations are staring us in the face.
First, much as the government would like us to forget the fact, we have been, and still are, in a pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have been bereaved, or been through trauma which has shattered their mental health. The British Medical Association says: “millions have developed long COVID, suffering long-term effects after infection.” These long-term effects can be extremely serious, and as the NHS says: “Long COVID is a new condition which is still being studied.” We are in new territory, which requires some humility from people making judgements about other people’s lives.
Second, record NHS waiting lists mean almost 8 million people are waiting for surgery or medical treatment. As no doubt Esther McVey could confirm, it is only common sense to assume that many of those people will be unable to work until they get the treatment they need. A government report, written in 2019 but only released recently after a freedom of information battle, said many jobcentres were reporting a “large number of claimants presenting with mental health conditions, for which there is little immediate provision because of long NHS waiting times”. That situation has deteriorated significantly since 2019.
And third, raising the retirement age means that many people in poor health who would have been receiving a state pension are now on out of work benefits. As Dave Finch of the Health Foundation says: “The government’s State Pension age policy fails to acknowledge the decline in the health and work prospects for people in their 50s and 60s in the UK, leaving thousands at risk of living in poverty for longer. Prolonging poverty for people nearing retirement risks further deterioration in their health and potentially greater government costs in the long run.”
So, as the government yet again stirs up resentment and suspicion towards people on benefits, let’s look at this from a different angle, and start asking some questions which may be more pertinent.
Where are the employers who are eager to employ people with an illness or disability? Where are the businesses who are happy to give a job to someone who is frequently unavailable because they are ill, in hospital or attending medical appointments? Where are the employers seeking to recruit people with a history of severe mental illness?
In 2019, research for Leonard Cheshire found ‘an unacceptably harsh landscape for disabled workers’. For example:
- 66 per cent of managers said the cost of workplace adjustments are a barrier to employing a disabled person – up from 60 per cent in 2017.
- 24 per cent of UK employers said they would be less likely to hire someone with a disability.
- 17 per cent of those who had applied for a job in the past five years said the employer withdrew the job offer as a result of their disability
And bear in mind that this research came six years after the government had launched its ‘Disability Confident’ scheme. This was supposed to increase job opportunities for disabled people, but allowed employers to gain Disability Confident credentials without employing a single disabled person.
Then of course, there is transport. Even if a workplace is accessible, which can never be assumed, people have to get there. Sustrans conducted a Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry which found: “A lack of inclusive travel options is one of the factors that create a disability employment gap”.
The government’s answer to this is, of course, working from home. It could be a good option for some people, but again, it could only be seen as a panacea by people who have never been seriously or chronically ill. When otherwise healthy workers get flu or gastroenteritis and stay at home, do they do a normal day’s work? No – they get well, then return to work. Why is it so difficult to accept that chronically ill people are actually ill – they are not on some kind of extended holiday. They may desperately want to be well enough to work, but sadly that may never be the case, even working from home.
And whilst it is so focused on pressuring disabled people to find work, the government itself fails to provide even the most basic adjustments which would help them to do so. This year Sense, a charity for people with complex disabilities, found that not one Jobcentre in the UK has a computer with assistive technology. Jobcentre computers are simply unusable to many people with a complex disability.
So, the government should not put potentially dangerous pressure on sick and disabled people. It should invest in the NHS to help those who can get well, and change the ‘unacceptably harsh’ employment landscape they face. When suitable jobs become available, disabled people who are able to work will be only too delighted to take them. Until then, do not punish people for a lack of opportunity beyond their control – and accept that some people, although they would love to have a career, are working hard simply to manage their disability or illness. They should be respected, not stigmatised.
© 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. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden