There has been a lot of adverse comment, both on social media and elsewhere, regarding the recent cut to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – much of it in the form of tedious memes about Tory MPs’ expenses claims (which now pass through an independent authority and, when looked into, usually account for paying staff). But such details are irrelevant. All that matters is feeding into a narrative that obscures the actual issues and instead focusses on the public’s ongoing resentment towards MPs. But what is the issue here?
The issue here, just to remind everyone, is the Government’s aim to reduce the disability employment gap and, more generally, reform our bloated Welfare State. This Government have made good progress, by and large, in rationalising our country’s frankly cockamamie benefits system and helping many groups into work over the last few decades – with lone parent benefit claims around half their peak and unemployment claims a fraction of their ’80s and ’90s levels. Job outcomes for people with health conditions or disabilities have been the key failure of welfare policy in recent years. When ESA was introduced by the late Labour Government back in 2008, the then Work & Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, predicted there would be a million fewer claimants within a decade. Instead, the number has barely changed: from 2.6 million then to 2.5 million today. It has been a complete failure.
The hope is that Universal Credit (UC) will move us away from a situation, which Iain Duncan Smith has described, quite rightly, as “too many sick and disabled people languishing in a life without work, when work is actually possible for them.” However, whilst UC will improve work incentives and simplify the application process in some ways, in others it runs the risk of simply replicating the problems of the old system. You still have an expensive, stressful separate benefit gateway for disabled people called the ‘Work Capability Assessment’. This policy is an oxymoron, being about neither work, capability, nor a true assessment of anything. Rather, it is an unnecessarily confrontational encounter whereby claimants are required to satisfy some faceless apparatchik that they are indeed ‘sick enough’ to claim the higher rates of ESA. The medical assessments, it seems to me, bear little relationship to identifying a positive outcome to assist a claimant who wants to get back into work to do so.
Add to this the practically non-existent conditions that need to be fulfilled to continue receiving the benefit, and little access to any meaningful form of employment support, it is hardly surprising that even out of those claimants deemed able to carry out activities to help them move towards work – the so-called Work Related Activity Group (or ‘WRAG’) – only about 1% them actually manage to get off benefits and into work. That is shameful. Reforming this system is, as they say, an absolute ‘no-brainer’, both in order to ensure the Welfare State is sustainable and affordable into the future and also that claims are legitimate and the benefits paid out are actually ensuring that people with disabilities gain from the social, health and wellbeing, and financial advantages of work wherever possible.
The Government (though facing stiff opposition in the House of Lords, where it does not command a majority) has already gone some way towards reducing the financial incentives to claim one benefit over another by reducing the WRAG rate to that of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). It is very easy for the Opposition to paint every cut in welfare as just another ‘callous attack on the poor and disabled’ (because we’re all ‘Tory scum’, dontcha’ know, and just hate poor and disabled people) but this Government is attempting root and branch reform of the Welfare State, which Labour turned into a catastrophic quagmire of misplaced entitlement and benefit dependency. I have yet to hear Labour articulate what they would do. I think the Government must go further to fulfil our manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap. Personally, I would like to see a single out-of-work benefit for everyone regardless of health condition – a true ‘Universal Credit’ – that would allow any barriers to work for a claimant to be diagnosed separately from consideration of which out-of-work benefit they are eligible for. Reducing the rate to that of JSA would also release funds that could better be deployed to provide additional support to the most severely disabled through the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and increase investment in employment support programmes. We clearly need earlier, more comprehensive interventions that will allow the development of effective, personalised treatment plans to address a claimant’s health problems.
If people can work, then they should work. Not because they ‘owe it to society’, not because of some draconian notion of ‘civic duty’, but for their own wellbeing and to enable everyone in our society, including our disabled citizens, to take advantage of the restorative power and self-respect that comes from an honest day’s work.