A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Disability benefit failures are a travesty

The pro-big business parties, New Labour, Tories and LibDems, vied with each other at their party conferences with zealous plans to make the working class pay for the economic and financial crisis. Each party boasts about the size of cuts to public sector services and jobs it will inflict after the next general election. Sick, disabled and unemployed people could only watch in horror. The Tories led the way. Cameron said his party would force all sick and disabled people currently on Incapacity Benefit (IB) to undergo strict medical assessment, aiming to push an estimated 500,000 people off IB and onto Jobseekers Allowance. This would result in a benefits cut of about £25 a week, from an already miserly £89.90 a week to £64.30 a week. This vicious measure has nothing to do with encouraging people back to work. It has everything to do with making the sick and disabled pay for the economic crisis. Cameron says the £600 million saved will fund an expanded, accelerated welfare to work programme to get the long-term unemployed, particularly young people, into work.

The Tory plan involves assessing 2.6 million IB recipients over a three-year period. This would mean processing 3,000 assessments every day. No way will this allow benefit recipients to be assessed fairly, nor will New Labour's current plans of 10,000 assessments a week. New Labour ministers criticise the proposals but, from October 2008, Gordon Brown's government has replaced IB with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for all new claimants. The Personal Capability Assessment of Incapacity Benefit was replaced with a much tougher ESA Work Capability Assessment. Now thousands of people who previously would have qualified for IB are required to seek work. Since October 2008 over two-thirds of ESA claimants have been forced onto Jobseekers Allowance. Jobcentre Examining Medical Officers award no points to claimants who clearly have severe physical and/or mental health problems. The whole system, from initial claim to appeals, is weighted against claimants. More than three-quarters of appeal hearings went against them. The Disability Alliance says the new Work Capability Assessment is too rigid, even requiring people about to have operations and some terminally ill people to be assessed, with the assessment itself unable to reflect disabled people's lives and needs. Disabled people are judged as ready for work when they cannot really work or need specialist help to find suitable employment.

And how easy will it be for the thousands of disabled people forced into the jobs market to find work? Once placed on Jobseekers Allowance they find there is no tailored help at a time of increasing unemployment. They struggle to find work in a more competitive jobs market where, says the Disability Alliance, employer discrimination against the disabled remains high. An estimated 40% of IB claimants have one or more mental health problems, but a recent survey showed that 80% of employers would not take on people with mental health problems. Cameron claims his proposals confirm the Tories as a compassionate party! No less 'compassionate' is New Labour. Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper complained that Cameron's proposals just rehash government plans. She boasted that the government is already implementing tougher tests for everyone on IB, stronger requirements on the jobless to find work and is using private companies. The money that the Tories squeeze out of these vulnerable people will be used to massively expand, in effect, workfare, their 'work for your benefits' system for the long-term unemployed, particularly aimed at those under 25. Unemployed people will be forced to work 30 hours a week for Jobseekers Allowance of just £64.30 a week for those aged 25 and over, and a disgraceful £50.95 a week for those under 25!

The Tories also plan to reduce from a year to six months the period the unemployed can claim Jobseekers Allowance before being forced onto training or into jobs. But New Labour pipped the Tories at the post by announcing their own 'work for your benefits' programme, pilot mandatory work trials and so-called work experience placements for jobseekers out of work for over six months. The Child Poverty Action Group correctly argues that if the government can find temporary work for an unemployed person they should pay them a proper wage. Whoever wins the next general election, these proposals are a thin end of a wedge, the thick end of which could be moves to cap unemployment benefits to a maximum period of six months for everyone, as is already the case in many other countries. Cameron's plans will involve greater use of private companies to deliver their proposals. New Labour has already heavily used private companies to deliver its Flexible New Deal 'back to work' programme. In a scheme intended to involve both private companies and the voluntary sector, fewer than 40% of contracts went to the voluntary sector, despite a DWP fraud investigation into the activities of at least three private 'welfare to work' contractors.

Clearly, whichever party wins the next general election, the sick, disabled and unemployed will feel the brunt of the attacks. Millions of workers, either as employees or users of the public sector, will have no choice but to fight back. The trade unions need to launch a mass campaign, to include unemployed and disabled workers, to defend our public services and the welfare state, a vital part of which is decent benefits for those workers who, for whatever reason, are unable to work. Cuts, outsourcing and privatisation mean vulnerable adults and children are 'falling through the net'. Social care staff are struggling to cope with high caseloads, increasing red tape and worsening pay, terms and conditions at work. Home care, day services, residential homes, social work, child protection, and services for people with special educational needs, mental health services, support for disabled people, people with learning difficulties and older people. All our services are under attack from New Labour in government and the Tories and Lib Dems in our local councils. And more of the same is promised.

In some councils, the tendering process has been refined to little more than an 'e-bay style auction' - rival companies sit at their laptops underbidding each other until the 'race to the bottom' is complete. The contracts for looking after our mums and dads, nannies and granddads, are awarded to the lowest bidder - in one case just over £7 per hour. The only way the companies can make profits at this level is to cut wages and to fiddle the books - claiming for time spent with clients which doesn't happen. Older people are dying through the pursuit of profit. The contracts for looking after our mums and dads, nannies and granddads, are awarded to the lowest bidder - in one case just over £7 per hour. The only way the companies can make profits at this level is to cut wages and to fiddle the books - claiming for time spent with clients which doesn't happen. Older people are dying through the pursuit of profit. The government says that more elderly people want to stay living at home with support, as opposed to going into residential care. The same philosophy drives policies for disabled people and people with learning difficulties. "Independence, freedom and choice" the politicians shout. "Close the residential homes, close the day centres, give everyone freedom and independence".

Socialists believe strongly that all vulnerable members of society should be treated with respect and dignity. They have the same right to a good quality of life as anyone else, including the right to stay at home, live independently, go to work and so on. The truth is, under the present system, these words are a con trick, a smokescreen behind which the politicians can cut back spending on social care, leaving people neglected, alone and abused. Whilst 'old-fashioned' and 'institutional' services such as 9-5 segregated day centres and foreboding residential homes should make way for more mainstream, community-based and inclusive 21st century services, very little resources are being provided for any replacement services. Although care workers in some local authorities have fought for and won improvements to pay and conditions, closures are being used as a way to cut costs and get rid of staff. More and more people are now expected to pay for services themselves - provided mainly by private, profit-making companies and voluntary (charity-based) groups. Councils are providing fewer and fewer services under this con trick of 'promoting independence'.

Work and Pensions (DWP) minister Peter Hain has announced new medical 'tests' from next October for people with disabilities to make it harder to qualify for incapacity benefit. 2.7 million people currently claim £7.4 billion a year in incapacity benefit. Many of them are people chucked out of work when the Tories destroyed industrial jobs but whose redundancy pay has gone. Some have severe work-related illnesses such as emphysema, many are suffering from depression. People with psychiatric illnesses make up 40% of those on incapacity benefit. Katrine Williams, who is DWP Wales Secretary of the PCS union, speaking in a personal capacity, told the socialist: "The targets include getting one million people off sickness and disability benefits. "Most of the onus of the welfare reforms continues to be on the individual claiming benefit and their 'responsibilities' rather than the government taking action to tackle the discrimination that people with disabilities face from employers. This government's welfare reforms coincide with savage job cuts and privatisation of essential services like New Deal for Disabled People and Pathways to Work in the DWP. This has a massive impact on the services we provide to the public. The DWP as an employer is far from satisfactory. In one year alone over 1,000 staff were sacked for being sick.

Many currently face the threat of compulsory redundancy are single parents, have a disability or have caring responsibilities and live in areas where it is difficult to find work. A GMB union survey a few years back showed "a direct link between high employment rates and low benefit claimant rates, and vice versa. Where there are jobs, there are low claim rates. The task for the government in seeking to reduce the number of claimants is to promote the creation of more jobs." Instead, they attack their own workforce and bring in new attacks on sick, disabled and vulnerable people. These cuts need to be fought, and the whole "strongest will survive" elitist mantra scrapped. I've seen people who are homeless. A few friends of mine are on very low benefits, and struggle to afford both bills and food. Incapacity Benefit does not even cover basic needs. Electricity, gas, water, and other bills are much more than this, leaving little left over for food or anything else. Millions live on bank overdrafts and other people face the same problem. Some of them cannot even afford to turn the heating on in winter. There is no doubt that Britain's welfare benefits system is complex, unwieldy and hard to understand for those who claim it and those who administer it. But Labour's current Welfare Reform Bill, that would replace Incapacity Benefit and Income Support for people who are sick with the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is far worse.

You have to look behind the spin to see what this will really mean for physically and mentally ill and disabled people. Incapacity Benefit and Retirement Pension are the only two benefits that are based on National Insurance contributions in the way envisaged at the Welfare State's creation in 1948. The government is seeking to increase the age when people can claim retirement pension from 65 to 68. Incapacity Benefit recipients have been increasingly subjected to a 'work-focused' regime of interviews over recent years. This bill enshrines this approach in legislation. Replacing Incapacity Benefit with ESA will erode the provision of contributory benefit by limiting the amount of the contribution-based part of the benefit to a low rate. The 'support' or 'work-related activity' components will be added after the person has been assessed as having 'limited capability' for work or work-related activity. This seriously erodes sick people's rights. It is a further clawing back of concessions won by the working class after the second world war. ESA shifts the benefit's ethos away from compensating someone for not being able to do their own job or any work towards making them work.

The bill doesn't accept medical certificates provided by a GP as evidence of 'limited capability of work-related activity'. People will have a 'health-related assessment' by a 'health care professional' to determine what work or work-related activity they can do. Certain people with severe physical or mental health conditions will receive the 'support component'. Everyone else will be subjected to a regime of work-focused interviews, work-related activities and regular reassessments. Failure to comply or cooperate or to participate in a prescribed way will lead to reductions in benefit. This will particularly disadvantage those with mental health conditions who may not be able to cope with complying with prescriptions about the sort of information they supply and how they supply it. The bill clearly lays out the privatisation of the work to administer the benefit's work-focused elements. This will take away core areas of work from civil servants and hand it over to companies who - the government admits - don't have the expertise and don't want to help people, they just want to make a profit; this is no way for the government to support vulnerable sick people.

The number of people on IB is higher in areas where coal mining and heavy industries have closed, because of diseases caused by hazardous work and the devastating effects on mental health of the closure of these industries and the fragmentation of communities. It is these people that New Labour want to get off benefit. The bill's aim is to remove a million of the 2.6 million on Incapacity Benefit. Another aim is an 80% employment rate. Even senior civil servants say that work-focused regimes wouldn't be needed if decently paid jobs with good conditions were available. Instead people will be coerced into low-paid work with poor conditions. In order to reduce the unemployment figures, the Tories also decided that 16 hours work or more was full time. 80% employment based on part-time hours means that the reality for lots of workers is that they have to have several part-time jobs to survive. The Welfare Reform Bill's explanatory notes complain about the 'perverse incentive' to stay on benefit because the benefit rate goes up the longer you're on it. The real 'perverse incentive' offered by New Labour is to private companies whose low pay is subsidised by tax credits paid to workers from the public purse.

In other countries, there have been widespread demonstrations against attempts to dismantle state benefits. In Britain we continue to suffer the death of the post-war welfare state by a thousand cuts, started by Thatcher and followed by Blair. All three main parties have this neo-liberal agenda. Workers need a new party to represent their interests and to protect and rebuild welfare in Britain. Once again workers are paying for the crisis in the capitalist system. Wrapped in words like 'reform', 'modernisation' and 'opportunity', this is an attack on the most vulnerable in our society. In an ideal world, the physically and mentally ill would have the dignity of a living income as well as access to decently paid jobs with good conditions if they were able and wished to work. The Department for Work and Pensions have poorly thought-out plans to get one million people off Incapacity Benefit. The government are trying to divide disabled people into the worthy and unworthy poor. They talk about work for those who can and help for those who can't. The reality is that New Labour plans to bully disabled people off benefits into low-paid, slave labour jobs, which are both exploitative and unsuitable. This isn't only an attack on disabled people but on the wages and conditions of all organised workers - disabled people who refuse such slave-labour employment will have their benefits cut.

The problem isn't in our attitude towards working, it lies in employers' reluctance to offer us jobs. If New Labour were really serious about 'helping disabled people into work' it would do more to tackle the widespread discrimination against us amongst most big employers. Where are these jobs going to come from? Will the government put money into the Access To Work Scheme (set up to provide equipment, etc to disabled people in employment) so as to ensure that any necessary adjustments are made to workplaces? If the government won't find the resources needed, the scheme won't work! Why are they on Incapacity Benefit in the first place? Why did many of us lose our jobs when we became disabled people? Why do employers prefer to train someone new, rather than enable someone who knows the job to carry on working? Why is the media now full of Incapacity Benefit fraud stories? These are the new scapegoats. First it was unmarried mums, next came asylum seekers/refugees. Now add disabled people to that list. Why does New Labour assume it is full-time, long-term work that is wanted, are capable of doing and is available? Many disabled people have fluctuating conditions. Some  have regular medical appointments. Some of us need adjustments in the workplace and/or support from work colleagues. If we work, our work patterns need to take these issues into account.

The government's own survey showed last year that only 0.3% of the Incapacity Benefit paid in the UK is fraudulently claimed. You wouldn't think there would be much room for cuts in those figures. But New Labour plans massive cuts in the Incapacity Benefit payment system. It's not easy to get Incapacity Benefit. Last year 2.7 million people applied for it, but only just under 1.5 million received it. A recent TUC study shows that the vast majority of those receiving Incapacity Benefit are either too ill to work or people whose health problems make employers pass them over as job candidates. Incapacity Benefit is paid at three rates, starting at just £55.90, rising at the six-month point and then rising to £74.15 after a claimant has been on the benefit for a year. With additional allowances, the average payment is £84.51 a week. New Labour intend to put all claimants back on £55.90 a week. An extra payment would go to those who could prove they were actively seeking work. A fixed 20% of the most severely incapacitated claimants would receive a top-up, so their total benefit would be higher than the current rate.

Cuts in Incapacity Benefit would cause severe hardship. As a proportion of average earnings, incapacity benefit is already extremely low. The rate for a single person fell from 17.4% of average earnings in April 1995 to 15.2% in April 2003. Nor is Incapacity Benefit a growing problem for government. The number of those receiving Incapacity Benefit has fallen by almost 400,000 since 1995. No one wants to be on Incapacity Benefit. The vast majority of those on the benefit worked for years and once out of work, a significant number suffer from depression. That makes it even harder to get work - where there is any. So do long NHS waiting lists. Unsurprisingly, the areas that have seen the most dramatic loss of jobs over the past 20 years are those with the highest level of Incapacity Benefit - areas of South Wales, Glasgow, Yorkshire, Durham and Liverpool.  According to a Merthyr Tydfil council report from 2004, "approximately 30% of the population have a long-term limiting illness". Those actually receiving Incapacity Benefit number 10,000 out of a population of 56,000, which amounts to 22.8% of those of working age. This earned Merthyr the title of "sickness capital of Britain". But Merthyr's figures are matched by 22.1% in Blaenau Gwent and 23% in Easington in County Durham. And of course, where underemployment is high, those with health problems have even less chance of getting a job. New Labour claim that they want to remove "disincentives" to people getting jobs, but they themselves admit that Incapacity Benefit fraud is almost non-existent. In fact, they are simply further impoverishing some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

Ex-mining and ex-shipbuilding areas are among those with the highest take-up rate for IB. That shows that the conditions that these workers toiled in have made them ill. And many workers in those industries wrecked by previous governments were put off sick rather than adding them to the unemployment figures. Blunkett’s idea of ‘coaxing’ is to cut the income of those who don’t find work. But where is the government going to put these workers eager to "try out" employment, as New Labour coyly puts it? After such disasters as Rover and Marconi there is increasingly only low-paid unskilled work available. New Labour’s majority in Parliament has been cut tremendously and we could see more rebellions from MPs, particularly those from areas with high numbers of IB claimants. A massive campaign of opposition could convince these MPs to join in the fight against this legislation. The government treats Incapacity Benefit claimants as ‘lazy’ and ‘scroungers’. Yet all New Labour’s policies are designed to aid the real scroungers in our capitalist society - the super-rich. Britain’s wealthiest 1,000 people have just got richer and richer over the last 25 years under both Tory and New Labour governments. They are now 'worth' a record £250 billion, up by nearly a quarter on last year, according to the latest Sunday Times rich list. That’s 152% wealthier than when Blair came to power in 1997!

These scroungers gain from pro-rich government policies yet they avoid paying tax on their ‘earnings’. Around the world they avoid taxes totalling a cool $860 billion a year. The rich make this $860 billion out of the $11.5 trillion they stack away. They use ‘offshore’ companies, washing their cash through a host of tax havens, anything rather than contribute towards the societies where their businesses operate. The super-rich are robbing the poor in ‘their own’ countries and in the ex-colonial world. But rich business people, their accountants and tax experts, who bay for punitive action against IB claimants, all say there’s nothing anyone can do about this. When their wealth is threatened the rich often threaten to carry out a ‘strike of capital’, in other words they say they will stop investing. There is ‘something we can do about it’. If these rich individuals try to stop investment, their companies should be taken into public ownership with compensation paid only to those in need. And, if they can’t do a useful job, we could always put them on Incapacity Benefit!

True to form, most of New Labour’s plans are designed to make life better for rich profit-seekers and worse for the rest of us. His big business agenda talks of ‘reforming’ the NHS and the welfare state but he means more private-sector involvement and more cutbacks. One of their most draconian bills aims to curb what ministers call ‘spiralling’ incapacity-benefit (IB) costs. David Blunkett says he wants to "coax" up to a million sick and disabled people off IB and into work. But IB is for people who can’t work through illness or disability. And apart from that very vulnerable group who were incapacitated early in life, most IB receivers have made national insurance contributions all their lives. The Disabled People's Movement agrees meaningful jobs are a key to disabled people escaping out of poverty. But we say NO to being forced off benefits into low-paid work. NO to coercion and punitive cutting of benefits. NO to care charges. NO to their hands in our pockets. They say YES to a flexible and realistic approach to all the issues of work and benefits. YES to disabled people's freedom to choose work. And YES to ending discrimination against disabled people!


Anonymous said...

bout time the got the people who are a little depressed back in to work !!! to many people to lazy to work think my taxs should pay for them to sit at home and watch jeramy kyle all day !!!

Mary said...

Well written post, Dan.

Another thing that they miss is that the inadequate provision compounds the problem.

You might not be depressed at the point you get knocked off your bike, break your spine, and go for an extended stay in hospital... but egads, will you become depressed once you've spent a year losing your job, hobbies and friends through poor physical access to venues and services, and an income that barely grazes the breadline.

As you rightly observe, depression (and the side effects of anti-depressant medication) then has a knock-on effect on a person's ability to manage various aspects of life and deal with the challenges presented, and the whole thing spirals out of control.