Autumn Statement - abandoning sick and disabled people

By Bernadette Meaden
November 25, 2015

It was very alarming to hear the Chancellor say, in his Autumn Statement, "So today we confirm we’ll extend the same support and conditionality we currently expect of those on JSA to over 1 million more benefit claimants".

This seemed to apply to disabled people - there was no further explanation in the Chancellor's speech, but it is assumed to refer to claimants receiving Employment and Support Allowance who are in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). These are people who have undergone a stringent Work Capability Assessment and have been found unfit to work. As the DWP itself explains, "You must have a Work Capability Assessment while your ESA claim is being assessed. This is to see to what extent your illness or disability affects your ability to work.You’ll then be placed in one of two groups if you’re entitled to ESA:

- a work-related activity group, where you’ll have regular interviews with an adviser

- a support group, where you don’t have interviews"

There is already a terrible problem with people in the WRAG, particularly those with mental health issues, being sanctioned. Only this month did we learn that the number of benefit sanctions imposed on people with mental health problems has increased by 600 per cent in the last four years.

Benefit sanctions cause hunger and destitution. To understand just how wrong they are one can do no better than read the report from the Churches Joint Public Issues Team, Rethinking Sanctions. As it so aptly says, sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for an appointment is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping.

"It is precisely because of the damage caused by poverty to human well-being that the welfare state exists. We would argue that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being. At the heart of our Christian understanding of social justice is that human society should make provision for the weakest and most vulnerable. It is alarming to discover a welfare system that deliberately sets out to exploit a person’s vulnerability in order to achieve control and compliance."

If people who are mentally and physically unwell or disabled become subject to the even harsher conditionality which currently applies to healthy Jobseekers, the number of sanctions will soar. We will see more and more people with mental and physical health problems, who the DWP has itself deemed unfit to work, turning up at foodbanks.

This government has an obsession with reducing the number of people claiming out-of-work disability and sickness benefits, trying to claim that spending on them is out of control. This could not be further from the truth. The IFS has said that spending on such benefits, at 0.8 per cent as a share of GDP, "is half the level of disability benefit spending when it was at its peak in 1995–96."

In his Budget earlier in the year, George Osborne announced that future WRAG claimants would receive the equivalent of Jobseekers Allowance - that is around £30 per week less than current claimants get. Putting these two measures together, the cut and the conditionality equivalent to JSA, we have the effective abolition of the Work Related Activity Group. There will in future be no point in anybody even undergoing the stress and humiliation of a Work Capability Assessment unless they are confident they will be placed in the Support Group. The government will have engineered the removal of any additional financial support from large numbers of sick and disabled people, partly by harrassing them into just giving up applying for it. For a large proportion of sick and disabled people, unless they can find a job they are able to do, they will in effect be abandoned to a life of struggling to survive on inadequate benefits, interspersed with sanctions.

The way the government has treated sick and disabled people since 2010 has been appalling, with a cruelty that is completely unnecessary, unjustified and frankly baffling. The Chancellor's announcement today seems to be just another kick to people who are already down, a complete denial of the reality of life for people like the late David Clapson, a diabetic who died when he received a benefit sanction. Expect to see many more sick and disabled people at your local foodbank.

Update : since this blog was written, more information has been released about which claimants wil be affected by this extra conditionality. Please read http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22378 for clarification


© 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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