These are nervous times for incapacity benefits claimants; with more rigorous testing coming for Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance, there is also the threat of more cuts to come later in the year.
Earlier this week, Chancellor George Osborne hinted that benefits which the government had not given specific commitments to protect would be part of a summer spending review aimed at cutting the deficit – although exactly what form this may take has not been elaborated on and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has since tried to play down reports of cuts.
Nevertheless, it all amounts to a worrying time for disabled people. There have been several blogs in the past week by people who fear for their future or are angry at the nature of the changes, such as Emmanuel Smith in The Guardian and Dawn Willis.
Already Incapacity Benefit – and its successor Employment Support Allowance – has been in the firing line for some time, with new claimants having to go through more stringent checks with the work capability assessment since before the election. This is set to be extended to all claimants next year.
The government reckons that about one in 5 people on Incapacity Benefit – about 500,000 – are fit for work.
Some people – the much talked about “benefit scroungers” – who do play the system that will be found out by this, which is good.
But the vast majority of claimants are legitimate – 500,000 erroneous claimants seems high to me – and the Citizens Advice Bureau reported in March that the work capability assessment has found seriously ill and disabled people fit for work, including people with Multiple Sclerosis and severe mental illness.
There are several potential negative effects of taking people off Incapacity Benefit and onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. For instance, not only will income be reduced – and many disabled people are not well off to begin with – but, for people with mental health problems especially, the stress could harm their recovery.
The targeting of DLA is also serious; the new assessment seems designed to get people off it.
Indeed, there is a feeling among some commentators that the government has misinterpreted what DLA is. The Guardian’s Anne Wollenberg pointed to the government’s state of the nation report, which noted that “…around 2.2 million people, including 1.1 million people of working age, have been claiming disability living allowance for over 5 years”.
As Anne says, DLA is not and never has been an unemployment benefit; it is there to support people with the extra costs associated with disability – usually a long-term condition – such as wheelchairs and care services.
For many claimants, DLA is essential to their quality of life and if they were moved off it, life would become very tough very quickly – they will still need the equipment/services DLA enabled them to buy but have less money to do it with.
All these measures are wrapped up in a drive to get people off benefits and into work. While this is a laudable aim, there are problems. For instance, the UK is just coming out of one of the longest recessions of recent times and jobs are scarce, with 2.9 million unemployed and another 1.3 million set to lose theirs due to the measures in the recent Budget, according to news reports today.
The struggle to get work is often magnified for people with disabilities. Even though there is anti-discrimination legislation, I would be willing to bet that many employers would still choose an able-bodied person over someone with disabilities – although few would admit as much and may do it unconsciously.
I could go on. But it is clear is that life could get very tough for some people with disabilities or mental illness in the coming months and years if the government goes ahead with its plans.
Postscript: The government has now announced an independent review of the methods used to assess incapacity benefits claimants’ fitness to work and will report back by the end of the year.