Philip Hammond has been roundly criticised following comments he made to the Treasury Select Committee, suggesting that falling productivity rates in the UK workforce was due to more disabled people being in work.
Giving evidence to the Commons Treasury Select Committee concerning the Budget, the Chancellor said: “It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people – something we should be extremely proud of – may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements.”
He added :“It may have collateral impact on measured productivity performance.”
These comments betray a political mindset that is underpinned by the idea that disabled people are somehow a ‘burden’ on the economy, either in work or out of it. Conservative ministers such as David Freud and Philip Davies among others have suggested that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage, implying that their labour is somehow worth less than that of others.
Labour MP John Mann, a Committee member, said the Chancellor’s comments were “appalling” and later tweeted: “Chancellor just linked low productivity growth to the labour market and specified the increased employment of disabled people.
“My experience of employing disabled people is that they are brilliant employees. The chancellor’s comments are ignorant.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabilities, said: “Shocking that Philip Hammond is trying to blame disabled people for low productivity!
“Disabled people contribute enormously and disability employment gap has barely changed since productivity started to stall. Disgusting scapegoating!”
Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams MP, said Hammond’s comments were “disgraceful” and called on the Chancellor to apologise:
“It is disgraceful that Philip Hammond is scapegoating disabled people for a productivity crisis created by the Conservatives’ failed economic policies”, she said.
“This is coming from a Government that has forced disabled people to pay the price of their failed austerity agenda, including by cutting measures that help disabled people into the workforce and scrapping their own manifesto commitment on halving the disability employment gap.
“We should be increasing disabled people’s access to employment, not denigrating their contributions.
“The Chancellor should apologise immediately.”
Anna Bird, director of policy and research at disability charity Scope, said: “These comments are totally unacceptable and derogatory.
“They fundamentally undermine the Government’s policy to get more disabled people into work, and the ambition set out by the Prime Minister just a week ago.
“The Chancellor must urgently withdraw them and offer a full apology.”
In their recent response to The Future of Work, Health and Disability consultation, which ran last year, the Government say that they will increase the numbers of disabled people in employment by a million by 2027. The Conservatives claim that they want to ensure disabled people ‘fulfil their potential.’ They claim that work is a ‘health outcome’ and employment is linked with better health in order to justify the raft of policies that has left many disabled people without adequate lifeline support for the past few years.
Hammond’s comments make a mockery of the whole rationale behind the government’s approach to disabled people’s welfare and justification of the severe cuts in their lifeline support. Many disabled people have been forced by the state to work because they suddenly found themselves no longer eligible for financial support. This is because of the re-written state assessment processes, which are specifically designed to cut costs. This has caused distress and harm to many disabled and ill people, at a time when they are very vulnerable.
For example, last year I wrote a harrowing article about a man with a serious lung condition, hernia and he also developed depression and anxiety, who was passed as ‘fit for work’ by ‘independent’ and state-contracted ‘healthcare professionals’. His doctor was told by a manager at Birkenhead job centre to stop issuing ‘fit notes’ (another Orwellian language shift by the government, to describe sick notes). The letter said:
‘We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.
This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.’
The doctor obliged and the patient died. He clearly wasn’t ‘fit for work.’
James Harrison was very worried that his ill-health interfered with his obligation to comply with the inflexible and harsh conditions attached to his eligibility for basic welfare support and that this would lead to sanctions – the withdrawal of his lifeline support and only income, which was calculated to meet his most basic survival needs only. What an absolutely appalling situation for the state to put someone in when they are so ill.
It’s difficult to understand why a so-called civilised, developed and very wealthy nation would place some citizens’ lives at risk in this way. James isn’t an isolated case. There are many more people that have been distressed and harmed by the consequences of the Conservative’s disciplinarian approach to ‘welfare’ policies.
The Government has already faced a damning United Nations inquiry into their systematic failure to observe and uphold the basic human rights of disabled people.
The correlation claimed by the Government regarding health and work most likely arises because of a faulty inferential leap of convenience on their part. Again, this claim has been used to justify cuts to support for disabled people. The correlation arises because people aren’t in employment when they are simply too ill to work.
This said, being out of work has become very bad for people’s health, because welfare has been reduced to the point where it cannot adequately cover the costs of people’s most fundamental and basic survival needs any more. It was originally designed to cover only essentials. It stands to reason that if it has been reduced, people won’t be able to afford necessities any more. Many people in work are also facing severe difficulties in meeting their basic physical needs, because of the drop in real wages over recent years and increasing employment insecurity, coupled with rising living costs. Living standards have plummeted which will invariably impact on peoples’ health, in work or out. Work is failing to provide sufficient income, and that is getting worse. There is a well-established correlation between mental and physical wellbeing, and financial hardship.
The Conservatives also claim that people taking long term sick leave has a detrimental impact on the economy and productivity, costing UK employers and the Treasury millions.
It seems the Government is struggling to produce a coherent and consistent rationale for their increasingly draconian policies aimed at pushing disabled people into work and more generally, in getting their ‘facts’ straight.
It’s about time conservative ministers stopped their expedient scapegoating of ill and disabled people.