Disabled campaigners have questioned government plans to tighten the benefit sanctions regime and even end access to free prescriptions for some claimants, at a time of mounting evidence of a deeply flawed universal credit system and fatal safeguarding failures.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and work and pensions secretary Mel Stride announced a “tougher” sanctions regime alongside an expansion of “tailored, intensive support” last week, as part of a new Back to Work Plan that will have the universal credit working-age benefits system at its heart.
The plan will mean some claimants – although not those with a disability-related allowance – who refuse to comply with conditions imposed on them by jobcentres could have their universal credit claim closed and lose their entitlement to additional benefits such as access to legal aid and free prescriptions.
These measures could still affect many disabled people, including those who have been wrongly found fit for work, and those appealing against such a finding.
There will also be an expansion of employment support, much of it aimed at those with mental health conditions, including the Individual Placement and Support programme.
Ministers claim that expanding the NHS Talking Therapies programme will “help those with mental health conditions stay in or find work”, while the Universal Support scheme will match 100,000 people per year in England and Wales with existing vacancies and support them in their new jobs, and the WorkWell service in England will support people “at risk of falling into long-term unemployment due to sickness or disability, through integrated work and health support”.
But the announcements came after weeks of revelations highlighting continuing concerns about the safety of the universal credit system, and the pressures that jobcentre work coaches are already subjected to.
Only last week, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that a coroner had warned Stride he needed to take action to prevent flaws in universal credit (UC) leading to further deaths, following the suicide of a disabled man who had become overwhelmed by the application process.
In the same week, DNS reported how a “deeply troubling” government document that ministers had kept hidden for four years revealed significant flaws at the heart of the UC system and how DWP supports “vulnerable” claimants.
But DNS has also reported in the last month how whistleblowers from an Oxford jobcentre have raised serious concerns about safeguarding failures that have put the lives of benefit claimants at risk, with Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, saying it was “beyond disgraceful” that many of his DWP members were “becoming too ill to work because of chronic understaffing”.
Dr Sally Witcher, former chief executive of Inclusion Scotland and founder of the social enterprise Inclusive New Normal, and a former chair of the UK government’s Disability Employment Advisory Committee, told DNS this week: “It’s inexplicable why, instead of a fundamental rethink, government chooses to double-down on a demonstrably failed approach that is linked to suicides.
“Yet they seem to think the answer is to throw more tax-payers money at it and compel people to engage with it, by issuing threats of dire destitution, gaslighting real sickness, barriers and employer discrimination, and accusing people of lack of effort to find jobs that are, in fact, wholly fictitious.
“By what stretch of warped imagination could that possibly constitute support of any kind?
“This does nothing to acknowledge the real reasons sick and/or disabled people are not in work and it will achieve nothing except compound exclusion and exacerbate mental ill-health.
“And, if benefits are totally withdrawn, be in no doubt that people will die.”
Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, author of Second Class Citizens, which describes the harm caused to disabled people by a decade of cuts and reforms, said the government was “good at creating new names for the same old ideas of increasing conditionality and sanctions whilst calling it increased support and incentives” but was “less good at understanding the lives of the people it is affecting”.
She said: “The DWP regularly designs employment support policy based on over-optimistic expectations of what claimants are able to do.
“Their own work coaches report being over-stretched and unable to help many of the people the DWP expects them to get into work.
“Now we hear that a 2019 report found that UC does not support vulnerable claimants properly.
“This is not surprising, given the DWP’s beliefs around benefit claimants, but it is further evidence that their constant focus on making benefits harder to access is badly misguided.”
David Hayes, from Disabled People Against Cuts Sheffield, which has warned for years of the flaws at the heart of universal credit, said DWP had access to “a plethora of research that shows the current system of disability payments is causing huge levels of impoverishment, distress and death”.
But he said the government, including Hunt, Stride, and prime minister Rishi Sunak, “seem determined to continue persecuting disabled people, and treating us with utter disdain”.
He said: “We all know the lived reality of the situation that their ideology has caused, despite their trying to convince people they come as ‘friends’.
“If all you have left in the tank is stripping disabled people of our meagre means to live so as to distract from the countless humanitarian failures you’ve presided over, forcing us to work when years of high-level research and the application of medical science prove that we are not fit to work, then it’s time to go or prepare to be removed.”
Meanwhile, the announcement by Stride and Hunt has been accompanied by a return to some of the harmful rhetoric of the post-2010 coalition years, with Laura Trott, chief secretary to the Treasury, telling Sky News: “Ultimately, there is a duty on citizens that if they are able to go to work, that’s what they should do.”
Hunt, who wrongly stated that “work is good for everyone” – contradicting research commissioned and frequently quoted by DWP over the last two decades* – also warned: “Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits.”
Those words echo the language of David Cameron at the Conservative party conference in October 2010, when he told party members: “If you really cannot work, we will always look after you.
“But if you can work, and refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.”
That speech, and others like it by coalition ministers, including Iain Duncan Smith, who spoke the following year of how incapacity benefit was “too often abused as an excuse for avoiding work”, were followed by years of deaths linked to tightening of the sanctions regime and the disability benefits system.
*The 2006 research (PDF) by Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton is often criticised by disabled activists, but it still found only that work is “generally” good for health, while more recent research has concluded that there is only “limited evidence on the effect of employment on health, with some studies showing a positive effect of work on health yet others showing no relationship or isolated effects”
Picture: Mel Stride (right) congratulating Jeremy Hunt after his speech