New campaign ruffles feathers as it takes aim at ESA ‘dead parrot’

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A new user-led campaign has issued a controversial call to replace out-of-work disability benefits with a new system that recognises that many sick and disabled people cannot find work because of their “reduced productivity”.

The Dead Parrot campaign is the latest to call for the government to scrap employment and support allowance (ESA) and its eligibility test, the work capability assessment.

But its emphasis on “reduced productivity” and the argument that a replacement for ESA must recognise the “ruthless” nature of the labour market has led some disabled activists to brand the campaign as “dangerous”.

Pat’s Petition and CarerWatch, the two user-led groups that have launched the campaign, say the labour market allows only people who “can do the most work for the least money” to find employment.

They argue that this means that many sick and disabled people will never find work, because of their “reduced productivity”, even if employers make reasonable adjustments for them.

Because the government has made it so tough for people to claim unconditional support – through the ESA support group – many have been left in no-man’s land, not qualifying for the support group but with no chance of finding paid work.

Pat’s Petition and CarerWatch say the government could address this by easing the ESA support group eligibility criteria, amending equality laws and intervening in the jobs market.

They say: “Until this changes, people whose productivity is reduced won’t be able to gain employment and so need a safe secure income without threats and conditionality.”

So they argue that the replacement for ESA should be paid – without any conditionality – to anyone who cannot find work because of reduced productivity.

The idea has won support from some prominent disabled campaigners, including Professor Peter Beresford, Spartacus researcher Stef Benstead, union activist Sean McGovern, and Rick Burgess, formerly with the New Approach campaign and the WOW petition.

Pat’s Petition (PP) and CarerWatch are now encouraging other campaigners to discuss the idea on the PP Facebook page and website.

But their campaign has already divided disabled campaigners, particularly because of its focus on “reduced productivity”.

A statement from the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said this focus – with the phrase mentioned three times on the website – was “dangerous” because it implied that all disabled people have “reduced productivity”.

DPAC said the new campaign failed to focus on disabled people’s support needs, or attempt to challenge issues such as government cuts to Access to Work.

DPAC said: “We feel this has not been thought through properly in terms of negative implications.”

And it warned that the new campaign was “totally naïve” in suggesting that the government would consider signing up to its demands.

It also warned that the campaign could provide ammunition for work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who has suggested that people in the ESA work-related activity group could work a few hours a week, and welfare reform minister Lord Freud, who has spoken approvingly of paying some disabled people a lower hourly rate because they are “less productive”.

DPAC also pointed to the controversy in 2011 when the right-wing Tory MP Philip Davies argued in a Commons debate on the minimum wage that employers should be allowed to pay people with mental health conditions less than the minimum wage because they were not “as productive in their work as someone who does not have a disability of that nature”.

The DPAC statement adds: “The DPAC national steering group feel there are too many problems and negative implications with [the campaign]to give our support to it.”

Frances Kelly, a founder member of PP and CarerWatch, accepted that their campaign risked entrenching employer discrimination, but said it was vital to find a new approach that “closely models reality in the job market and helps and protects everyone”.

She said they had been left with no option to their new model by the government’s insistence that “the only way out of poverty is work”, even though the job market was “ruthlessly competitive”.

Kelly said the system assumed a “cliff face” from the support group to everyone else, which made life intolerable for those who cannot compete on a level playing-field.

Pat Onions (pictured), founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “We hope that this campaign will put pressure on Iain Duncan Smith to ensure a safety net that supports all sick and disabled people into work at their own pace, without the sanctions that have been such a major part of the current system.”

She added: “We are aware that we are liable to being accused of siding with [ministers]and of suggesting that sick and disabled people are less productive and therefore of less value.”

But she added: “We want to acknowledge that some of us are indeed less productive: why are people so scared to say the obvious? But that does not make any of us less valuable for that.”

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