Disabled activists have raised serious concerns about “cynical” and “horrendously dangerous” government attempts to introduce new cuts to spending on out-of-work disability benefits by tightening its “fitness for work” test.
The plans announced by work and pensions secretary Mel Stride could see the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) no longer taking any account of whether a disabled person has a mobility impairment when deciding if they are fit for work or work-related activity through a work capability assessment (WCA).
Ministers are also suggesting removing the absence of bowel or bladder control, the inability to cope with social interaction, and the inability to access a location outside the claimant’s home, from the list of activities and “descriptors” used in the WCA.
Stride argued this week that the “rise in flexible working and homeworking” provided “new opportunities for disabled people to manage their conditions in a more familiar and accessible environment”.
He is also considering removing protective guidance which states that a claimant should be found eligible for the highest rate of support – with no conditions or potential sanctions – if work or work-related activity would create a substantial risk to their health (see separate story).
Disabled People Against Cuts today (Thursday) promised that it would “fight back against this new atrocity with everything we have”, and said: “DPAC know how much fear this has caused amongst disabled benefit recipients.”
Stride claimed in a speech to MPs that his plans – due to be introduced from 2025 – were about ensuring that “those who can work are given the right support and opportunities to move off benefits and towards the job market”.
But the DWP press release highlighted the real-terms increase in spending on “incapacity benefits” from £15.9 billion in 2013-14 to £25.9 billion this year, a rise of 62 per cent.
Stride told MPs that the proportion of disabled people “being given the highest level of award and deemed to have no work-related requirements at all” had risen from 21 per cent in 2011 to 65 per cent last year.
But he did not tell MPs that the early 2010s saw the beginning of years of activism and research that exposed the links between the WCA and the deaths of disabled claimants, eventually forcing DWP ministers to ease the harshness of the assessment and make it easier to qualify for the ESA support group and avoid work-related conditions.
DWP claims in this week’s consultation document that the WCA had not changed significantly in the last decade, with a press release describing the proposals as “its first significant update since 2011”.
In fact, as the then minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, told MPs in 2020, the government “commissioned five independent reviews” of the WCA from 2010 to 2014 and “implemented more than 100” of their recommendations.
The new plans follow months of attacks on disabled people on out-of-work benefits in the media.
This led to disabled activists from the National Union of Journalists – backed overwhelmingly by fellow union activists – calling for the press regulator to strengthen its code of practice, following news stories published by papers including the Telegraph which had “demonised” disabled people who cannot work.
The broadcaster Jeremy Vine faced calls to issue a personal apology after a member of his team published a social media post in his name that asked if it was time to “crack down” on sick and disabled people on out-of-work benefits.
The hostile articles continued this week, with Daily Mail columnist Andrew Pierce attacking “an army of shirkers” who he said were claiming “sickness benefits which British taxpayers are footing the bill for”.
In another article, the Mail quoted a “senior government source” saying they believed that only a million of the 2.4 million people currently receiving universal credit or ESA and not expected to carry out any work-related activity were “so disabled they are incapable of doing any work”.
The Mail headlined the article: “One million on sickness benefits will have to find a job.”
It echoes a hugely controversial interview given by DWP adviser David (later Lord) Freud to the Daily Telegraph in 2007, in which he claimed that fewer than a third of the 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefit were “legitimate claimants”, a claim that was comprehensively discredited.
Stride has already announced plans to scrap the WCA after the next election, which will see eligibility for the extra payment for those currently assessed as having limited capability for work and work-related activity (LCWRA) awarded instead to anyone who receives both universal credit and personal independence payment (PIP).
This would mean eligibility for a new “health element” of universal credit being decided through the PIP assessment, and it could see more than half a million disabled people losing out financially.
This week’s plans to tighten the WCA are now being put out to a public consultation, which will end on 30 October.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts and author of The War on Disabled People, said she believed the plans to scrap the WCA were a key reason the government refused to appear before the UN committee on the rights of person with disabilities last month.
The committee was hearing evidence on how the UK government has implemented recommendations made in a report in 2016 which found it guilty of “grave and systematic” violations of the convention, with most of those breaches caused by policies introduced by DWP ministers.
Clifford said she believed the idea behind the WCA reforms was to force workers into filling vacancies “for all the ‘bad jobs’ with pay too low to make a living from and insecure hours”.
She said ministers had “ignored the major safeguarding concerns” raised by DPOs and charities, and that disabled activists feared the proposals would be brought in whichever party – Labour or Conservative – wins the next election.
She said: “They are effectively getting rid of out-of-work benefits for disabled people and denying the realities and prevalence of disability to do it, at the same time ramping up sanctions which are proven to discriminate against disabled job-seekers.
“It is horrendously dangerous.”
Disability Rights UK said the proposed reforms were a “cynical” attempt to cut benefits and impose conditions on disabled people.
Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare and benefits adviser, said: “The government’s proposed changes to the work capability assessment are less to do with helping disabled people into work than a cynical attempt to impose conditionality and to reduce benefit payments.
“The consultation proposals include excluding consideration of someone’s mobility problems altogether, and also removing the assessment category of work having a substantial risk to health.
“This means that disabled people may be forced to work beyond their capabilities.
“Help and support can be offered to disabled people to get us into work without work capability changes, conditionality and sanctions.
“The carrot always works far better than the stick. Disabled people are not scroungers, skivers and work avoiders, as this policy appears to indicate.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said the government’s proposals were “a cynical attempt to cut the budget” with no apparent thought to the impact on sick and disabled people.
He said: “They are trying to make it so that everybody is subject to conditionality, both those out of work and in work.
“Sanctions don’t work. The government’s own evidence shows that sanctions don’t work.
“It’s not going to do much more than tyrannise people and make more people destitute and homeless.”
He said the reason more disabled people were found not fit for work and placed in the ESA support group after the early 2010s was that DWP began to realise the “dangerous and precarious situation” they were being placed in by the WCA.
Public health experts from Liverpool and Oxford Universities showed in a study in 2015 that the process to reassess claimants on old-style incapacity benefit through the WCA from 2010 to 2013 was “associated with” an extra 590 suicides across England.
A DWP spokesperson refused to say if the department had carried out any health-related research into the reasons for the increase in disabled people being found to have LCWRA.
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