The previous Government launched an all out attack on disabled people's income and support. They were the number one target for unjustified cuts. This has led to growing poverty and deaths for sick, disabled and older people. The current Government has continued this policy and is now intent on taking it further.
On 23rd February the Commons will debate Welfare Reform and Work Bill 2015-16 after the Lords rejected the Government's plan to further slash the incomes of 0.5 million disabled people receiving the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by about £1,500 per year.
Over the past few years we've seen report after report underline the deeply flawed nature of the whole system:
- Assessments have been privatised at great cost, but the quality of those assessment has been very poor, often directly damaging people's health.
- Fear and anxiety have increased, leading to increased rates of suicide.
- Unemployment for disabled people has not been reduced, as the system fails to offer the most appropriate support for those who are ready to work.
The ESA system is flawed on so many levels. But perhaps its most fundamental flaw is that it has given new life to an old evil - the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.
Currently there are three main groups:
- People who are not deemed as having a significant disability - who get Job Seekers Allowance and are part of a severe sanctions regime
- People who are deemed as having a significant disability - but who are deemed to be ready for work if they get the right support
- People who are deemed as having a significant disability - but who are deemed as probably unlikely to work
Once we distinguish one group as deserving and worthy of better treatment we legitimise the demeaning treatment meted out to those who are deemed as undeserving. Further, those who acquire this new and more protected status must then live in constant fear: Will they be deemed eligible? Will they lose their special status if reassessed? Will they be thought of as frauds or cheats even if they get the special status? The boundary between the deserving and undeserving is not a secure wall but a frightening tightrope from which people will constantly fall.
However the Government can rightly claim that the ESA was not created by the Coalition. It was created by New Labour. This is true, and advocates of New Labour policies need to reflect on why this policy is now so loathed by most in the disability community. The policy was intended to help more disabled people into work. But good intentions are not enough.
The policy arrogantly assumes that the DWP is competent to take control over the lives of millions of adult citizens. The policy wrongly assumes that people themselves cannot find work or determine when they are ready to find work. The policy ignores the real barriers to work and imagines that worklessness is somehow a function of wrong attitudes. It ignores the real causes of unemployment and poverty - which include the poverty traps designed into the benefit system itself. This is all dangerous and toxic nonsense.
The challenge for the disability community is to resist the injustice of further cuts in income while also trying to develop a better alternative for the future. One reason to be a little more optimistic is that at least the Labour Party has started to think about real alternatives to the narrow range of neoliberal austerity policies previously on offer. The new panel for economic advisors to Labour looks very encouraging. The renewed interest in basic income is welcome. It is only by shifting the debate onto a stronger and more progressive footing that we will strengthen the case for unseating the current Government.
One alternative to ESA is what I call Basic income Plus. This would take means-testing, conditionality, sanctions and all the other nonsense out of the system and ensure that disabled people has adequate incomes - as supplements to the basic income that all citizens would receive. Such a system would be cheap to administer and would ensure that every disabled person had a every incentive to work - if they can - while protecting their income - if they can't.
One further option, if a future Government lacks the courage to implement Basic Income immediately, would be to start with Basic Income Plus. We could then discover much more about the full potential for disabled people to transform the whole of society by better enabling them to contribute in whichever way seemed best to them. We might quickly learn that ending the tyranny of the DWP interference in people's life would unlock capacity across our communities.