It’s less than two months ago that the new Work and Pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, assured us that the Government had “no further plans” for specific welfare cuts. Now, he has admitted that welfare is to be the source of further austerity cuts to “bring down the deficit,” bearing in mind that the last budget saw alternative and far more fair, humane measures taken off the table when the Conservatives controversially announced cuts to disability benefits to fund tax cuts for the most affluent – the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor raised the threshold at which people start paying the 40p tax. This leaves the poorest and some of our most vulnerable citizens carrying the entire burden of austerity and the whole responsibility for cutting the deficit.
Of course Crabb assumes we believe that austerity is an economic necessity and not an ideological choice. However, austerity is being used as a euphemism for the systematic dismantling of the gains of our post-war settlement: welfare, social housing, the NHS, legal aid and democracy. There is no such thing as conditional democracy. It can’t be rationed out or applied with prejudice and discrimination. That would make it something else, more akin to totalitarianism and not a necessarily inclusive democracy.
The Government has already made substantial cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance disability benefit, cutting the rate for new claimants in the Work Related Activity Group by £30 a week from 2017. Now the Work and Pensions Secretary has said he wants to go further than the £12 billion welfare cuts declared in the Conservative manifesto and to “re-frame discussion” around disability welfare support, signalling his intention to cut expenditure on disability benefits through further reform to the welfare system. The Conservatives are clearly using the word “reform” as a euphemism for dismantling the welfare state in its entirety.
Prior to 2010, cutting support for sick and disabled people was unthinkable, but the “re-framing” strategy and media stigmatising campaigns have been used by the Conservatives to systematically cut welfare, push the public’s normative boundaries and to formulate moralistic justification narratives for their draconian policies. Those narratives betray the Conservative’s intentions.
Crabb said that he will set out a “discursive” Green Paper on the additional proposed cuts to disability benefits later this year. Iain Duncan Smith had previously promised a more formal White Paper which was considered key to persuading Tory rebels to vote through the cuts despite opposition in February.
The shadow Work and Pensions secretary, Owen Smith, said that the Government should reverse the ESA cuts which had already been passed, adding that the Conservatives needed to offer clarity on how the “reforms” would support disabled people into work.
He said: “Yet again the Tories have let down disabled people, by breaking their promise to quickly publish firm plans on supporting disabled people in to work.
“When the Tories forced through cuts to Employment Support Allowance in the face of widespread opposition they bought off their own rebels with a promise to have a firm plan in place by the summer.
“Now the new Secretary of State has confirmed that he is going to downgrade the plan to a Green Paper, effectively kicking the issue in to the long grass for months, if not years.
The flimsy case for the cuts to Employment Support Allowance is now totally blown apart by this broken promise and the Tories must listen to Labour’s calls for them to be reversed.”
Remarkably, Crabb has claimed that disability benefit cuts are among policies “changing things for the better.” However, if cutting people’s income is such a positive move, we do need to ask why the Conservatives won’t consider taxing wealthy people proportionately, distributing the burden of austerity more fairly amongst UK citizens, instead of handing out money for tax cuts to those who need the very least support, at the expense of those who need the most.
The secretary for Work and Pensions has said: “The measures that have either already been legislated for or announced get us to the £12 billion [welfare cuts planned in the Conservative manifesto].
Does that mean welfare reform comes to an end? I would say no. I’ve already pointed to what I see as one of the big challenges of welfare reform – and that’s around work and health.”
Crabb told MPs on Work and Pensions Select Committee that he would deploy “smart strategies” for cutting expenditure on disability and sickness benefits and would hopefully be able to secure the support of disability charities.
“In terms of how you make progress of welfare reform there when you are talking about people who are very vulnerable, people with multiple barriers, challenges, sicknesses, disabilities – I am pretty clear in my mind that you can’t just set targets for cutting welfare expenditure,” he said.
“When you’re talking about those cohorts of people you’ve actually got to come up with some pretty smart strategies for doing it which carry the support and permission of those people and organisations who represent those people who we are talking about.”
Both Crabb and his predecessor, Duncan Smith, have claimed that there are “millions of sick and disabled people parked on benefits,” yet rather than providing support for those who may be able to work, the Conservatives have abolished the Independent Living Fund and made substantial reductions to payments for the Access To Work scheme, creating more barriers instead of providing support for those who feel they are well enough to work.
A government advisor, who is a specialist in labour economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group. To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. The Conservative definition of “the basis of need” seems to be an ever-shrinking category.
Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.”
I’m sure the private company Unum would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the company denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states. The settlement related to Unum’s handling of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions.
The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. By coincidence, the company has been involved with the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right?
It’s difficult to see how someone with a serious, chronic and progressive illness, (which most people in the ESA Support Group have) can actually “manage” their illness and “move back into work.” The use of the extremely misinformed, patronising and very misleading term manage implies that very ill people actually have some kind of choice in the matter. For people with Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure, for example, mind over matter doesn’t fix those problems, positive thinking and sheer will power cannot cure these illnesses, sadly. Nor does refusing to acknowledge or permit people to take up a sick role, or imposing benefit conditionality and coercive policies to push chronically ill people into work by callous and insensitive and medically ignorant assessors, advisors and ministers.
The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.
Reform says the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessement have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut.
Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.”
The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – PIP. However, as outlined, the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into hard work.
The current United Nations investigation into the systematic and gross violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK because of the Conservative welfare “reforms” is a clear indication that there is no longer any political commitment to supporting disabled people in this country, with the Independent Living Fund being scrapped by this government, ESA for the work related activiy group (WRAG) cut back, PIP is becoming increasingly very difficult to access, and now there are threats to the ESA Support Group. The Conservative’s actions have led to breaches in the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES – CRPD articles 4, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and especially 19, 20, 27 and 29 (at the very least.) There are also probable violations of articles 22, 23, 25, 30, 31.
The investigation began before the latest round of cuts to ESA were announced. That tells us that the government is unconcerned their draconian policies violate the human rights of sick and disabled people.
And that, surely, tells us all we need to know about this government.
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.
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