Tag: Reform

‘Reforming’ ESA: the final frontier and the last moral boundary

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Context

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for people who are assessed as being unable to work because of a health condition and/or disability. Despite this, ESA has also been politically defined as financial support for people having difficulty finding a job because of a long-term illness or disability, to “help them back to work” despite their illness or disability. This presents a problematic tension because in order to qualify for ESA at all, people must be found to be unable to work, by their own doctor, and by the “independent” Work Capability Assessment.

There’s a significant difference between being unable to work, and facing significant additional barriers to work. People who are assessed are most commonly described as having “limited capability for work” – a phrase which is not precise in its meaning, and which does not include or prompt any consideration of social, cultural, political and economic contexts that also present disabled people with significant barriers to employment. 

The name of the allowance (“employment and support”) is also purposefully misleading, and betrays the original controversial political cost-cutting aims that prompted its inception. This re-branding of what was previously called “incapacity benefit” has been problematic. It implies that even those people placed in the Employment and Support Allowance Support Group, who are considered “unlikely” to be able to work in the foreseeable future, are nonetheless being “supported” into employment.

This blurring of definitions, categories and purposes has provided scope and political opportunity for discussion of introducing the mandatory requirement for pre-employment preparation, conditionality and sanctions to be applied to claimants with the most severe health conditions, in the Support Group. This has been casually suggested in the recent work, health and disability government consultation and green paper. Currently, anyone in the Support Group can voluntarily ask for pre-employment support, it isn’t compulsory.

A major assumption throughout the green paper is that disabled people claiming ESA are somehow mistaken in assuming they cannot work: “how can we improve a welfare system that leaves 1.5 million people – over 60% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance – with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market?   

This group were assessed by doctors and the state (via the Work Capability Assessment) as being unable to work. 

The aim behind the introduction of ESA was to actively reduce those previously eligible for Incapacity Benefit to a small group of people with severe disabilities (Support Group) and another moderately sized group who were to undergo fixed term pre-employment preparation and training (Work-Related Activity Group.)  The latter group are deemed unable to work, but expected to recover sufficiently to work within two years of the assessment. 

However, the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has been widely criticised, not least for its insensitivity and lack of capacity in differentiating between those people who “may” work, and those who cannot. Furthermore, the  WCA does not identify the social, cultural, political and economic barriers that disabled people face in finding suitable employment, and so the focus is on individuals without a context and their perceived personal “deficits” caused through illness and disability. This means that any pre-employment “support” for those who may or who wish to work is by its design unlikely to address the structural barriers to suitable employment that disabled people face.

The architects

Much of the politics of welfare in the 1980s revolved around “cuts” and restrictions in public spending designed to allow tax cuts, particularly reductions in the rates of income tax. Blair’s new programme, the New Deal, was all about moving people from social security benefits into work, as were many of the measures in the 1998 Budget.

David Freud, a former vice-chairman of bulge bracket investment banking at UBS, was an advisor on out-of-work benefit reform in December 2006. Freud’s 2007 report – dubbed “the Freud report” but officially titled Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work – called for the greater use of private sector companies who would be paid by results, for substantial “resources” to be made available to help people on Incapacity Benefit back into work, and for a single working-age benefit payment to replace individual benefits such as Housing Benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance (the forerunner of Universal Credit). His central idea was that spending on “delivery” – such as schemes to get people back to work, like the work programme – would save money in the long run because there would be fewer people being paid money in the form of benefits. 

Other contributions to the body of ideas behind ESA came from Frank Field, who was made Minister for Welfare Reform following the 1997 election, with Labour in power. Field felt that the state should have only a small role to play in the provision of welfare, and he viewed his task as “thinking the unthinkable” in terms of social security reform, but others report that Prime Minister Blair wanted some simpler vote-winning policy ideas. Blair writes that: “the problem was not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable”.

In January 2006, John Hutton published a White Paper outlining the government’s latest plans for welfare reform: the benefit that would replace Incapacity Benefit would be called Employment and Support Allowance and its “gateway” assessment would be transformed. Over the course of a decade, Hutton expected the number of people on Incapacity Benefit to fall by one million, saving £7billion a year.

In July 2008 a Green Paper was published, which James Purnell said was “inspired by the reforms proposed by David Freud”. The author announced that “between 2009 and 2013, all Incapacity Benefit claimants will be reassessed using a medical assessment called the Work Capability Assessment” that would divide them into three groups: fit for work; unfit for work but fit for work-related activity; or fit for neither. At the same time, Professor Paul Gregg was asked by the Department for work and Pensions (DWP) to conduct a feasibility study of conditionality and how it might be applied to people claiming sickness benefits. When responding to the Gregg Review, the DWP said that the study had recommended that conditionality be applied to “the vast majority of people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance.”

In early 2011, under the Coalition government, the Incapacity Benefit reassessment programme was underway using a much more stringent version of the WCA. Atos were recontracted to carry out the work. Targets were written into Atos’s new contracts to reduce successful claims. Dr Steven Bick, a GP with 20 years’ experience, applied for a job as an assessor with Atos to carry out the WCA, and secretly filmed his training for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, which was broadcasted on Monday 30 July. Undercover filming shows Bick being told by his trainer that he will be watched carefully over the number of applicants he “found eligible for the highest rate of disability payments.”

The documentary also highlighted the unease about the radically heightened eligibility criteria felt by some trainers employed by Atos to teach new recruits how to carry out the tests. It had become much more difficult for very severely disabled claimants to qualify for support. No matter how serious claimants problems are with their arms, for example, “as long as you’ve got one finger, and you can press a button,” they would be found fit for work, one trainer said. Bick said that assessors testing Incapacity Benefit claimants were told they should rate only about one in eight as needing to be placed in the Support Group. That’s regardless of the level of illness and disability they would be presented with, case by case.

In January 2016, the Conservative Welfare Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, announced that ESA was “fundamentally flawed” and declared that a brand new policy, which would get nearly all ESA recipients back to work, would be unveiled within weeks. A hint of what that policy might be was given in a detailed report on ESA published the following month by Reform, the right-of-centre neoliberal think tank:

  • Effectively, ESA would be abolished: the amount of money paid each week to the claimant would be reduced to the level of Jobseekers Allowance
  • The WCA may be replaced by another assessment that set out to identify any barriers to work faced by the claimant, but which would play no role in determining eligibility to benefits
  • As a way to nudge claimants towards overcoming those barriers, extra money might be made available to fund a tailored programme of rehabilitation – although participation in this could be made a requirement of continued receipt of the benefit.

State diagnosis and treatment – a blunt instrument

The government say that according to previous research undertaken by the DWP, musculoskeletal conditions were the most common main condition of people claiming ESA. Mental health conditions have more recently overtaken this category of illnesses as the main condition that “triggers” an ESA claim.

In the recent work, health and disability green paper, the government also say: ““[..] how can we improve a welfare system that leaves 1.5 million people – over 60% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance – with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market?”

The research paper also says: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The belief. Not evidenced fact.

That is a very dangerous idea. Many conditions are complex, unpredictable and difficult to diagnose. Some conditions have multiple symptoms affecting many different parts of the body. Musculoskeletal conditions, for example, are a category that includes conditions ranging from injuries to systemic and serious diseases. So “musculoskeletal conditions” include low back pain, injuries such as broken bones, torn or pulled ligaments and tendons, and slipped discs, wear and tear on joints, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and scleroderma.

Connective tissue diseases are systemic illnesses that usually affect other parts of the body, such as major organs, as well as the widespread pain and damage in the musculoskeletal system. Most people with these illnesses don’t just contend with pain in their joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves; they usually feel very unwell, suffering from weight loss, profound fatigue, susceptibility to infections and general malaise. They may have serious lung, heart, kidney or blood disorders, neurological disorders, eye and ear problems, vascular problems and a wide range of other serious symptoms that can be caused through widespread inflammation throughout the body. Physiotherapy, splinting damaged joints, and other traditional measures for helping injury doesn’t help in the long term with connective tissue disease, because the damage is caused by a disease process: through autoimmune mediated widespread inflammation.

This is precisely why I see my doctor and not the government when I am ill. I want an objective and precise medical opinion, diagnosis and specialist treatment when needed, not an ideological diagnosis, dogma in soundbites and a prescription for hard labour, to “set me free.” 

“[…]with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market?”  

Not all of the “same category” of conditions are the same. To assume they are is very dangerous. Furthermore, as previously stated, rehabilitation is unlikely to be helpful, since damage to the joints, tendons and ligaments isn’t caused through injury and it won’t heal. Medication is the only way to slow the damage that is caused by autoimmune complexes and inflammation. Connective tissue diseases are incurable. 

However, many of the treatments for connective tissue disease are also very risky and experimental. They include methotrexate, which is a chemotherapy, and immune suppressants such as enbrel and rituximab, which leave people at risk of dying from overwhelming infection, as well as other serious side effects, which may also kill.  

Having people believe that work is good for their health in order to reduce the numbers of people claiming ESA is authoritarian, disgracefully irresponsible and very dangerous.

On 22 December 2014 a bin lorry collided with pedestrians in the city centre of Glasgow, Scotland, killing six and injuring fifteen others. The driver of the council-owned vehicle, Harry Clarke, said he had passed out at the wheel. A similar blackout had happened to him in the driving seat of a bus, although he had not disclosed the incident on his heavy goods vehicle licence renewal application, despite such self-reporting being mandatory. 

Having been admitted to the Western Infirmary after the crash, Clarke was discharged on 7 January 2015 He was eventually diagnosed as having suffered neurocardiogenic syncope, a fainting episode caused by drop in blood pressure. The inquiry also revealed that Clarke’s medical history contained episodes of dizziness and fainting dating from the 1970s and that he had previously suffered a blackout while at the wheel of a First Glasgow bus, which was in service but stationary at a bus stop. 

It was stated that Clarke had been passed fit to return to work as a bus driver owing to failures by both the bus company’s doctor and Clarke’s own GP to spot that Clarke had changed his account of events, telling his GP that the episode had occurred in the canteen, which the GP then attributed to the hot conditions and deemed to be unlikely to be repeated. Clarke had a four-year history of episode-free driving after the 2010 incident, and First Glasgow’s occupational-health specialist had cleared him to drive after the 2010 incident and told him he need not notify the DVLA. 

A good question to ask is this. In the event of injury or death to either the person coerced by the state into work, assured that work is good for health, or to their work colleagues, as a consequence of that person not being fit for work, who is ultimately responsible? Bearing in mind that to qualify for ESA, a person has already been assessed as unfit for work. 

The shrinking category of illness and disability 

ESA was originally calculated to include the acknowledged additional every day costs that disabled people face in their day to day living. There was also a recognition that disabled people who can’t work face the cumulative effects of poverty because of a low income over time, too. The ESA Support Group have the higher rate because they are anticipated to be highly unlikely to work in the longer term. That outcome is assessed via the state WCA. So the state has already acknowledged that those in the Support Group are unlikely to be able to work. Those in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) are deemed unable to work, but “may” be capable of work in the future, more specifically, “within two years”.

Although PIP covers some additional costs that disabled people face, it’s designed to cover highly specific needs, with “components” for mobility, and a daily living component which is paid if you need personal care. Both the mobility and daily living allowance are narrowly task related, not cost related. There is no component, for example, that would cover extra heating, special diet and additional laundry requirements. Many special adaptations that people may need are not included, too. 

Many people who were previously eligible for mobility support through the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) assessment are no longer eligible because of the much harsher eligibility criteria for PIP. This has meant many thousands of people have lost their specially adapted motability vehicles or motorised wheelchairs. This includes people who relied on their vehicles to get to and from work, since PIP and DLA are not means tested, it can be claimed by people in or out of work.

Earlier this year I wrote that a government advisor, who is a specialist in labour economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group. To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment.

Both ESA and PIP were introduced with the same claim: that eligibility should be determined on the basis of need. The category of disabled people that the government regard as “most in need” is shrinking as the political goalposts constantly shift. I think the word “need” is being conflated with politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Oakley also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.”

A toxic article from the Conservative and neoliberal Reform think tank suggests that “treatments” for some ESA claimants are made mandatory, subject to sanctions and so on.

And I can see that coming down the pipeline to the tune of an insane political mantra: “work is a health outcome.” 

In Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits, Reform have this to say:

“Those with mild or moderate health conditions that, with support, could be managed should be expected to take reasonable rehabilitative steps – some level of conditionality should therefore be applied. Employment advisers must be appropriately trained to support those claimants, and given a high degree of discretion in how they apply that conditionality.”

“Could be managed” by work coaches and state sponsored occupational therapists? That comment implies that sick and disabled people and our health service are somehow “failing” to “manage” sickness and disability. Seriously? The inference we are supposed to make is that people are sick and disabled because they can’t be bothered helping themselves. I think that tells you all you need to know about the attitude that informs what kind of “rehabilitation” will be on offer. It won’t be tailored to your medical condition, it will be tailored to you simply getting a job. 

Another Reform articleReforming ESA: the final frontier? says: “There is a risk, though, with making health support mandatory and asking health professionals to police this.”

Compulsory medical treatment is against the law. There are also human rights implications. That’s regardless of the government’s narrow aim of coercing people into work by using “health” interventions as a prop. A medical intervention without valid informed consent is a criminal offence and the offending health care professional can be charged with assault or battery. Examples of such situations include treatment against the patient’s will, different treatment than the one consented for and treatment after consenting when a person has been deliberately provided with wrong information.

There are very few exceptions, which include: patients with acute or permanent incapacity (i.e loss of consciousness after an accident or patients on mechanical ventilation) or chronic illness (i.e dementia), patients suffering from severe mental illness, (but if a patient has clearly given an advance directive while still competent, the treating physician is legally bound to respect this) and patients suffering from communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB).

The four main principles of medical ethics are justice, non-malificence, autonomy and beneficence. Autonomy is the main ethical consideration underlying informed consent. The patients’ right to determine what investigations and treatment to undergo must be respected by all doctors.

For consent to be valid it must be informed consent. For this to be the case it must be:

  • Given voluntarily with no coercion or deceit. Sanctioning and the threat of sanctioning would constitute coercion.
  • Given by an individual who has capacity
  • Given by an individual who has been fully informed about the issue.

There are further implications regarding job coaches accessing medical records for patient confidentiality:

  • Breaching confidentiality fails to respect patient autonomy.
  • Violation of patient confidentiality is a form of betrayal.
  • Patients have a right to confidentiality that has frequently been demonstrated in common law and in some specific areas outlined in statute law.

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed entirely scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.

You see dangerous, circular and irrational justifications such as: “Nonetheless, international evidence does show that the rate at which sickness benefits are set can have behavioural effects – particularly on claim duration. ”  

Well no. Those on the higher rates are assessed as unlikely to be able to work in the long term and thus the “behavioural effects” are simply that this group are too ill to work. That means they will be claiming for long periods. Yet this blunt, dangerous and backwards logic is being used to claim that higher disability rates serve as a “disincentive”for work. 

The Reform think tank proposes that the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessment have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut, given the additional needs that disabled people have, which is historically recognised, and empirically verified by research.

Reform had also promoted the idea that the ESA WRAG should be paid the same as those claiming job seeker’s allowance. That happened of course. Now they are arguing that there should be NO disability premium at all for the Support Group, on the grounds that it serves as a “disincentive” to work. The government’s recent green paper clearly shows the idea has been taken on board in principle, given the discussion for introducing conditionality, work related activity and sanctions for the previously exempt group of very ill and disabled people, placed in that group originally because doctors and government contracted “independent” assessors deemed them too ill to work.

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them“to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.” People on sickness benefits don’t move into work because they are sick. Forcing them to work is outrageous. “Too ill to work” is simply that. It has nothing to do with “incentives”, and that patronising and dangerous claim is simply a politically expedient reinterpretation.

The government’s aim is to manage sickness and disability in the short term sufficiently enough to meet narrow neoliberal outcomes including fueling the supply side of the “labour market”.

But it’s a well known historical fact that a large reserve army of labour drives wages down. The other trend, over this last decade, has been the unprecedented growth of “flexible” or insecure contracts, which are considerably attractive to employers, who dispute many of the downsides that unions, workers and analysts have highlighted. (See: More than 7m Britons now in precarious employment). In this highly competitive context, it is highly unlikely that employers who have increasingly come to regard their employees as a disposable means of making profit are going to be “disability confident.” The fact that the government are proposing offering temporary financial “incentives” to employers that recruit disabled people tells us there is a major barrier there. 

Further comment from Reform: “Reform call for a single rate of ‘income replacement’ for out of work claimants, whether disabled or not. This would mean a reduction for many ESA claimants. However, Reform ask why ESA is paid at a higher rate. If it is because there are extra costs associated with disability, then isn’t this what Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is for? If it is because ESA claimants are expected to take longer to find work, then doesn’t this also apply to some Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants and other groups?” From Reforming ESA: the final frontier?

PIP covers very only highly specific additional costs: those related to mobility and personal assistance, as I outlined earlier, and it is very difficult to fulfil the eligibility criteria, since this was another re-branded benefit designed to cut cost. Being sick and disabled does mean that at the very least, people may need recovery time, and meanwhile cannot meet even basic signing on conditionality, such as being available for work seven days a week. However, many in both ESA groups cannot work because they are chronically ill, or have degenerative conditions. Some people in the Support Group are terminally ill. This is very worryingly something that Reform have chosen to ignore. 

The title of Reform’s paper – Reforming ESA: the final frontier? provides a glimpse of a wider political intention – ESA is the “last unexplored area” for welfare “reform.”  “Thinking the unthinkable” is one of those trite things that ministers say when they expect something of a public backlash, but have nonetheless already made up their minds about cutting some public service or essential social support provision. Beforehand, think tanks and ministers periodically “kite fly” their proposals to test out public responses, using justification narratives: techniques of persuasion, usually reserved for the dodgy end of the advertising industry, and techniques of neutralisation to soothe and to sell their ideas about how things ought to be. And where our money should not be spent. The “public purse” is being “protected” from more and more of the public – ordinary citizens – and is now regarded as disposable income for the very wealthy and powerful. Austerity for us, tax gifts for the 1%

Six years ago it would have been unthinkable for a government to take away financial support from sick and disabled people, and to coerce them into work. It would have been unthinkable for a government to propose making any kind of medical treatment mandatory for a protected social group – sick and disabled people who need support to meet their basic needs. It would have been unthinkable that a UK government would systematically violate the human rights of disabled people. Yet they have. 

That we have progressed to become a society that permits a so-called democratic government to do this indicates that the public’s moral and rational boundaries have been pushed, this has been an incremental process, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

There has been a process of gradual habituation of the public, to being governed by shock and surprise; to receiving decisions and policies deliberated and passed in secret; to being persuaded that the justification for such deeds and controversial policy was based on real evidence that the government parades as slogans propped up by glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion. It happens in stages. Many don’t notice the calculated step-by-step changes, but those that do  – usually those affected – are often overwhelmed with the sheer volume of them.

 “The final frontier” is the political garnering of sufficient levels of public indifference and complicity with state cruelty, coercion and the uncivilised systematic sanctioning and removal of support for those sick and disabled citizens that doctors and state assessors have already said are not able to work. This is a government that likes to get its own way. 

Once the public’s rational and moral boundaries have been pushed sufficiently to accommodate this atrocity, it won’t be very difficult at all to argue a case for the complete dismantling of the welfare state.

That has always been the ultimate aim of the Conservatives.

If you think that’s okay, then perhaps it’s worth contemplating that illness can happen to anyone, and so can an accident. We have all paid into our social security system, as have our parents. It is ours; it’s there for if or when we need support. It reflects the collective best of us as a society, yet somehow this government have managed to attach shame and stigma to it. And as a society, we’ve allowed them to do that.

Disability can happen to any of us at any time. And when it does, you soon realise that it isn’t a “lifestyle choice” that you would ever have chosen to make.

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 Related

What you need to know about Atos assessments

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide


 

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Initial thoughts on the work, health and disability green paper

proper Blond

I’ve read the government’s Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives and consultation from end to end. It took me a while, because I am ill and not always able to work consistently, reliably and safely. It’s also a very long and waffling document. I am one of those people that the proposals outlined in this green paper is likely to affect. I read the document very carefully.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts on what I read. It’s organised as best I can manage, especially given the fact that despite being dismally unsurprised, I am scathing.

The context indicates the general intent

“The fact is that Ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the Prime Minister said that disabled people would be protected.”Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, Official Report, Commons, 2/3/16; cols. 1052-58.

I always flinch when the government claim they are going to “help” sick and disabled people into work. That usually signals further cuts to lifeline support and essential services are on the way, and that the social security system is going to be ground down a little further, to become the dust of history and a distant memory of a once civilised society. 

If the government genuinely wanted to “help” sick and disabled people into work, I’m certain they would not have cut the Independent Living Fund, which has had a hugely negative impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives, and the Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is also a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work.

The government also made the eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – a non-means tested out-of- work and an in-work benefit – much more difficult to meet, in order to simply reduce successful claims and cut costs. This has also meant that thousands of people have lost their motability vehicles and support.

Earlier this year, it was estimated at least 14,000 disabled people have had their mobility vehicle confiscated after the changes to benefit assessment, which are carried out by private companies. 

Under the PIP rules, thousands more people who rely on this support to keep their independence are set to lose their vehicles – specially adapted cars or powered wheelchairs. Many had been adapted to meet their owners’ needs and many campaigners warn that it will lead to a devastating loss of independence for disabled people.

A total of 45% or 13,900 people, were deemed as not needing the higher rate of PIP, and therefore lost their vehicles after reassessment. And out of the 31,200 people who were once on the highest rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) who have been reassessed, just 55%, or 17,300 – have kept their car.

dpac
In 2012, Esther McVey, then the Minister for people with disabilities, as good as admitted there are targets to reduce or remove eligibility for the new disability benefit PIP, which was to replace DLA. How else could she know in advance of people’s reassessment that 330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced as she had informed the House of Commons. 

This was a clear indication that the new assessment framework was designed to cut support for disabled people. A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to an ever-shrinking category of “those with the greatest need.” 

The Government was twice defeated in the Lords over their proposals to cut Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people in the work related activity group (WRAG) from £103 to £73. However the £30 a week cut is to go ahead after bitterly disappointed and angry peers were left powerless to continue to oppose the Commons, which has overturned both defeats.

The government hammered through the cuts of £120 a month to the lifeline income of ill and disabled people by citing the “financial privilege” of the Commons, and after Priti Patel informing the Lords, with despotic relish, that they had “overstepped their mark” in opposing the cuts twice. 

A coalition of 60 national disability charities condemned the government’s cuts to benefits as a “step backwards” for sick and disabled people and their families. The Disability Benefits Consortium said that the cuts, which will see people lose up to £1,500 a year, will leave disabled people feeling betrayed by the government and will have a damaging effect on their health, finances and ability to find work. 

Research by the Consortium suggests the low level of benefit is already failing to meet disabled people’s needs. A survey of 500 people in the affected group found that 28 per cent of people had been unable to afford to eat while in receipt of the benefit. Around 38 per cent of respondents said they had been unable to heat their homes and 52 per cent struggled to stay healthy.

Watching the way the wind blows

Earlier this year I wrote that a government advisor, who is a specialist in labor economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group.

To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. 

I think the word “need” is being redefined to meet politically defined neoliberal economic outcomes. 

Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.” 

I’m sure the rogue company Unum would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the company denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states. The settlement related to Unum’s handling of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions. 

The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. By coincidence, the company has been involved with the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right? 

It’s difficult to see how someone with a serious, chronic and progressive illness, (which most people in the ESA Support Group have) can actually “manage” their illness and “move back into work.” The use of the extremely misinformed, patronising and very misleading term manage implies that very ill people actually have some kind of choice in the matter.

For people with Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure, for example, mind over matter doesn’t fix those problems, positive thinking and sheer will power cannot cure these illnesses, sadly. Nor does refusing to acknowledge or permit people to take up a sick role, or imposing benefit conditionality and coercive policies to push chronically ill people into work by callous, insensitive and inept and often medically unqualified assessors, job advisors and ministers.  

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.  

The Reform think tank proposes that the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. It is claimed that the cut will  somehow “incentivise” those people to find work, as if they simply lack motivation, rather than being ill and disabled. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessment have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again in the near future, many won’t be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut, given the additional needs that disabled people have, which is historically recognised, and empirically verified by research. 

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.” People on sickness benefits don’t move into work because they are sick. Forcing them to work is outrageous. 

The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – PIP. However, as outlined, the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into hard work.

The current United Nations investigation into the systematic and gross violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK because of the Conservative welfare “reforms” is a clear indication that there is no longer any political commitment to supporting disabled people in this country, with the Independent Living Fund being scrapped by this government, ESA for the work related activity group (WRAG) cut back, PIP is becoming increasingly very difficult to access, and now there are threats to the ESA Support Group. The Conservative’s actions have led to breaches in the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES – CRPD articles 4, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and especially 19, 20, 27 and 29 (at the very least.)

There are also probable violations of articles 22, 23, 25, 30, 31.

The investigation began before the latest round of cuts to ESA were announced. That tells us that the government is unconcerned their draconian policies violate the human rights of sick and disabled people.

And that, surely, tells us all we need to know about this government’s intentions.

Coercing those deemed to ill to work into work. It’s not “nudge”: it’s psycho-compulsion

The casual discussion in the green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” some ESA claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation” is also cause for some concern. 

Apparently these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Teamthe controversial Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office and Nesta.

Most people who read my work regularly will know by now that I am one of the staunchest critics of nudge, which is being used as an antidemocratic, technocratic, pseudoscientific political tool to provide a prop and disguise for controversial neoliberal policies. It’s very evident that “disabled people’s organisations” were not major contributors to the design. It’s especially telling that those people to be targeted by this “intervention” were completely excluded from the conversation. Sick and disabled people are reduced to objects of public policy, rather than being seen as citizens and democratic subjects capable of rational dialogue.  

John Pring at Disability News Service (DNS) adds: “Grassroots disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have criticised the government’s decision to exclude them from an event held to launch its new work, health and disability green paper. 

The event for “stakeholders” was hosted by the disability charity Scope at its London headquarters, and attended by Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said in its invitation – it turned down a request from Disability News Service to attend – that the event would “start the consultation period” on its green paper, Improving Lives. 

It said that it was “launching a new conversation with disabled people and people with health conditions, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers”.  

But DWP has refused to say how many disabled people’s user-led organisations were invited to the event, and instead suggested that DNS submit a freedom of information request to find out.
But DNS has confirmed that some of the most prominent user-led organisations with the strongest links to disabled people were not invited to the launch, including Shaping Our Lives, Inclusion London, Equal Lives, People First (Self Advocacy) and Disabled People Against Cuts.” 

For further discussion of the policy context leading up to the green paper, see The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work from October 2015. 

Also see G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy” and Stephen Crabb’s obscurantist approach to cuts in disabled people’s support and also Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records from earlier this year.

The dismal and incoherent contents of the green paper were entirely predictable.

The Conservatives claim work is a “health” outcome: crude behaviourism

A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

It was then decided that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming ESA by “encouraging” them into work. Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”. For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to a broader aim of dismantling social security.

From the document: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

Rather than make a link between manual work, lack of reasonable adjustments in the work place and the impact this may have on longer term ill health, the government chose instead to promote the cost-cutting irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome. Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually downright dangerous.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, it seems.

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship.

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive.

It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism.

Earlier this year, I said: The Conservatives have come dangerously close to redefining unemployment as a psychological disorder, and employment is being redefined as a “health outcome.” The government’s Work and Health programme involves a plan to integrate health and employment services, aligning the outcome frameworks of health services, Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT), Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme.

But the government’s aim to prompt public services to “speak with one voice” is founded on questionable ethics. This proposed multi-agency approach is reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive provision.

This is psychopolitics, not therapy. It’s all about (re)defining the experience and reality of a social group to justify dismantling public services (especially welfare), and that is form of gaslighting intended to extend oppressive political control and micromanagement. In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. It will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

Conservatives really seem to believe that the only indication of a person’s functional capacity, value and potential is their economic productivity, and the only indication of their moral worth is their capability and degree of willingness to work. But unsatisfactory employment – low-paid, insecure and unfulfiling work – can result in a decline in health and wellbeing, indicating that poverty and growing inequality, rather than unemployment, increases the risk of experiencing poor mental and physical health. People are experiencing poverty both in work and out of work.

Moreover, in countries with an adequate social safety net, poor employment (low pay, short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. 

There is ample medical evidence (rather than the current raft of political dogma) to support this account. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example. The understanding that food deprivation in particular dramatically alters cognitive capacity, emotions, motivation, personality, and that malnutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.)

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous.

In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.

In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being reduced by conditionally; by linking it to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will reduce every service to nothing more than a political semaphore and service provision to a behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers.

The Government is intending to “signpost the importance of employment as a health outcome in mandates, outcomes frameworks, and interactions with Clinical Commissioning Groups.”

I have pointed out previously that there has never been any research that demonstrates unemployment is a direct cause of ill health or that employment directly improves health, and the existing studies support the the idea that the assumed causality between unemployment and health may actually run in the opposite direction. It’s much more likely that inadequate social security support means that people cannot meet all of  their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter), and that contributes significantly to poor health outcomes.

It’s not that unemployment is causing higher ill health, but that ill health and discrimination are causing higher unemployment. If it were unemployment causing ill health, at a time when the government assures us that employment rates are currently “the highest on record,” why are more people becoming sick?

The answer is that inequality and poverty have increased, and these social conditions, created by government policies, have long been established by research as having a correlational relationship with increasing mental and physical health inequalities. 

For an excellent, clearly written and focused development of these points, the problem of “hidden” variables and political misinterpretation, see Jonathan Hulme’s Work won’t set us free.

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Prior to 2010, cutting support for sick and disabled people was unthinkable, but the “re-framing” strategy and media stigmatising campaigns have been used by the Conservatives to systematically cut welfare, push the public’s normative boundaries and to formulate moralistic justification narratives for their draconian policies. Those narratives betray the Conservative’s intentions.

Not enough people have questioned what it is that Conservatives actually mean when they use words like “help”, “support”, and “reform” in the context of government policies aimed at disabled people. Nor have they wondered where the evidence of “help” and “support” is hiding. If you sit on the surface of Conservative rhetoric and the repetitive buzzwords, it all sounds quite reasonable, though a little glib.

If you scrutinise a little, however, you soon begin to realise with horror that Orwellian-styled techniques of neutralisation are being deployed to lull you into a false sense of security: the ideologically directed intentions behind the policies and the outcomes and consequences are being hidden or “neutralised” by purposefully deceptive, misdirectional political rhetoric. It’s a kind of glittering generalities tokenism ; a superficial PR ritual of duplicitous linguistic detoxification, to obscure deeply held traditional Conservative prejudices and ill intent.

Rhetoric requires the existence of an audience and an intent or goal in the communication. Once you stand back a little, you may recognise the big glaring discrepancies between Conservative chatter, policies, socioeconomic reality and people’s lived experiences. At the very least, you begin to wonder when the conventional ideological interests of the Conservatives suddenly became so apparently rhetorically progressive, whilst their policies have actually become increasingly authoritarian, especially those directed at the most disadvantaged social groups.

The ministerial foreword from Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, is full of concern that despite the claim that “we have seen hundreds of thousands more disabled people in work in recent years”, there are simply too many sick and disabled people claiming ESA.

They say: We must highlight, confront and challenge the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings that, after many years, have become engrained in many of the policies and minds of employers, within the welfare state, across the health service and in wider society. Change will come, not by tinkering at the margins, but through real, innovative action. This Green Paper marks the start of that action and a far-reaching national debate, asking: ‘What will it take to transform the employment prospects of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions?’

I think mention of the “engrained attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings within the welfare state and across the health service” is the real clue here about intent. What would have been a far more authentic and reassuring comment is “we have met with disabled people who have long-term health conditions and asked them if they feel they can work, and what they need to support them if they can.”

Instead, what we are being told via subtext is that we are wrong as a society to support people who are seriously ill and disabled by providing civilised health and social care, social security and exempting them from work because they are ill or injured.

Ministers say:Making progress on the government’s manifesto ambition to halve the disability employment gap is central to our social reform agenda by building a country and economy that works for everyone, whether or not they have a long-term health condition or disability. It is fundamental to creating a society based on fairness [..] It will also support our health and economic policy objectives by contributing to the government’s full employment ambitions, enabling employers to access a wider pool of talent and skills, and improving health.”

I think that should read: “By building a country where everyone works for the [politically defined] economy.”

There’s patronising discussion of how disabled people should be “allowed to fulfil their potential”, and that those mythic meritocratic principles of talent determination and aspiration should be “what counts”, rather than sickness and disability. There are some pretty gaping holes in the logic being presented here. It is assumed that prejudice is the reason why sick and disabled people don’t work.

But it’s true that many of us cannot work because we are too ill, and the green paper fails to acknowledge this fundamental issue.

Instead “inequality” has been redefined strictly in terms of someone’s employment status, rather than as an unequal social distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. All of the responsibility and burden of social exclusion and unemployment is placed on sick and disabled people, whilst it is proposed that businesses are financially rewarded for employing us.

Furthermore, it’s a little difficult to take all the loose talk seriously about the “injustice” of ill people not being in work, or about meritocratic principles and equal opportunities, when it’s not so long ago that more than one Conservative minister expressed the view that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage. This government have made a virtue out of claiming they are giving something by taking something away. For example, the welfare cuts have been casually re-named reforms in Orwellian style. We have yet to see how cutting the lifeline benefits of the poorest people, and imposing harsh sanctioning can possibly be an improvement for them, or how it is helping them.

The Conservatives are neoliberal fundamentalists, and they have supplanted collective, public values with individualistic, private values of market rationality. They have successfully displaced established models of welfare provision and state regulation through policies of privatisation and de-regulation and have shifted public focus, instigating various changes in subjectivity, by normalising individualistic self-interest, entrepreneurial values, and crass consumerism. And increasing the social and material exclusion of growing numbers living in absolute poverty.

Basically, the Tories tell lies to change perceptions, divert attention from the growing wealth inequality manufactured by their own policies, by creating scapegoats.

Another major assumption throughout the paper is that disabled people claiming ESA are somehow mistaken in assuming they cannot work: “how can we improve a welfare system that leaves 1.5 million people – over 60% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance – with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market? How can we build a system where the financial support received does not negatively impact access to support to find a job? How can we offer a better user experience, improve system efficiency in sharing data, and achieve closer alignment of assessments?”

The government’s brand of armchair pseudo-psychology, propped up by the Nudge Unit, is used to justify increasingly irrational requirements being embedded in policy. The government intend to merge health and employment services, redefining work as aclinical health outcome. According to the government, the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability and sickness absence from work, is… work.

The new work and health programme, “support” for disabled people, is actually just another workfare programme. We know that workfare tends to decrease the likelihood of people finding work.

Work is the only politically prescribed “route out of poverty” for disabled people, including those with mental distress and illness, regardless of whether or not they are actually well enough to work. In fact the government implicitly equates mental health with economic productivity. Work will set us free. Yet paradoxically, disabled people haven’t been and won’t be included in the same economic system which is responsible for their exclusion in the first place.

Competitive market economies exclude marginalised groups, that’s something we ought to have learned from the industrial capitalism of the last couple of centuries. GPs inform us that employers are not prepared to make the necessary inclusive workplace adjustments sick and disabled people often need to work.

But in a dystopic Orwellian world where medical sick notes have been  politically redefined as ”fit notes”, sick and disabled people are no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. People are already being punished and coerced into taking any available job, regardless of its appropriateness, in an increasingly competitive and exclusive labor market.

The nitty gritty

You know the government are riding the fabled rubber bicycle when they calmly propose coercing the most disabled and ill citizens who are deemed unlikely to work by their doctors and the state (via the Work Capability Assessment) into performing mandatory work-related activities and finding jobs. Previously, only those assessed as possibly capable of some work in the future and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) were expected to meet behavioural conditionality in return for their lifeline support.

However, the government have cut the WRAG component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – another somewhat Orwellian name for a sickness and disability benefit – so that this group of people, previously considered to have additional needs because of their illness and disability, are no longer supported to meet the extra costs they face. The ESA WRAG rate of pay is now to be the same as Job Seeker’s Allowance.

If the government make work related activity mandatory for those people in the ESA Support Group, it will mean that very sick and disabled people will be sanctioned for being unable to comply and meet conditionality. This entails the loss of their lifeline support. The government have the cheek to claim that they will “protect and support” the most vulnerable citizens.

Hello, these ARE among our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why they were placed in the ESA support group in the first place.

Apparently, sick citizens are costing too much money. Our NHS is “overburdened” with ill people needing healthcare, our public services are “burdened” with people needing… public services. It is claimed that people are costing employers by taking time off work when they are ill. How very dare they.

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberal economies organise societies into hierarchies.The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes of these sociopolitical problems therefore cannot be located within individuals.

The ESA Support Group includes people who are terminally ill, and those with degenerative illnesses, as well as serious mental health problems. It’s suggested that treating this group of people with computer based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (cCBT), and addressing obesity, alcohol and drug dependence will “help” them into work.

Ministers claim that this group merely have a “perception” that they can’t work, and that they have been “parked” on benefits. It is also implied that illness arises mostly because of lifestyle choices.

Proposals include a punitive approach to sick and disabled people needing support, whilst advocating financial rewards for employers and businesses who employ sick and disabled people.

And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

So, a new “independent” assessment and private company will most likely soon have a lucrative role to get the government “the right results”.

Meanwhile health and social care is going to be linked with one main outcome: work. People too ill to work will be healthier if they… work. Our public services will cease to provide public services: health and social care professionals will simply become co-opted authoritarian ideologues.

Apparently, the new inequality and social injustice have nothing to do with an unequal distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. Apparently our society is unequal only because some people “won’t” work. I’m just wondering about all those working poor people currently queuing up at the food bank, maybe their poorly paid, insecure employment and zero hour contracts don’t count as working.

I’ve written as I read this Orwellian masterpiece of thinly disguised contempt and prejudice. I don’t think I have ever read anything as utterly dangerous and irrational in all my time analysing Conservative public policy and the potential and actual consequences of them. These utterly deluded and sneering authors are governing our country, shaping our life experiences, and those of our children.

The sick role and any recovery time from illness or accident that you may need has been abolished. Work will cure you.

Well, at least until you die.
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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

The closing date for the consultation is 17 February 2017.
You can download the full consultation document from this link.
You can take part in the consultation from this link.



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The Government’s brutal cuts to disability support isn’t ‘increasing spending’, Chancellor, but handing out tax cuts to the rich is

Chancellor George Osborne

 

2 wrag

Source: Hansard

Context

Many of us recognised in 2012, when the welfare “reforms” and other cuts to public services that support the poorest citizens were forced through parliament despite considerable opposition, using only the “financial privilege” of the Commons as a justification, that the Conservatives are on an ideological crusade, which flies in the face of public needs, democracy and sound economics, to shrink the welfare state and privatise our essential services.

In a wealth transfer from the poorest to the very rich, we have witnessed the profits of public services being privatised, but the losses have been socialised – entailing a process of economic enclosure for the wealthiest, whilst the burden of losses have been placed on the poorest social groups and our most vulnerable citizens – largely those who are ill, disabled and elderly. The Conservative’s justification narratives regarding their draconian policies, targeting the poorest social groups, have led to media scapegoating, social outgrouping, persistent political denial of the aims and consequences of policies and reflect a wider process of political disenfranchisement of the poorest citizens, especially sick and disabled people.

That the cuts are ideologically driven, and have nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity, was demonstrated only too well by the National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year. The NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The report indicates how public services are being appropriated for purely private benefit.

The audit report in January concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments conducted by private companies than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill.

From the report:

£1.6 billion
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending.

This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the private needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making lots of private profit whilst it does so. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist, antidemocratic, profoundly uncivilising prescriptions and longstanding prejudices.

Last week I wrote about the £30 a week Employmen Support Allowance (ESA) work related activity group (WRAG) cuts, which the Government have forced through the legislative process, despite meeting with widespread opposition, the government claim that it is their financial privilege to do so. Yesterday I wrote about the brutal cuts that are planned for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for sick and disabled people, which are aimed at saving money by reducing eligibility for the support. The cut, it is estimated, will affect at least 640,000 disabled people by 2020, who may lose up to £150 a week. This is money that provides essential support for people who need help to prepare food, use the toilet or dress themselves, amongst other things, and to maintain a degree of dignity and independence.

The cuts to ESA and Personal Independent Payments (PIP) take place in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. In fact in March last year, the Prime Minister signalled that the Conservatives will protect disabled claimants from welfare cuts in the next parliament (this one). Cameron said the Conservatives would not “undermine” PIP, which was introduced under the Coalition to save money by “targeting those most in need.” Now it seems those most in need are not the ones originally defined as such.

At the time he told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve replaced one benefit – Disability Living Allowance – with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – it’s working well, it is also going to lead to some savings over time and we haven’t created that benefit in order to undermine it. We want to enhance it and safeguard it.”

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” or about “helping”, “supporting” or insultingly, “incentivising” sick and disabled people who have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors and the state via the work capability assessment to work.

The Tories all too frequently employ such semantic shifts and euphemism – linguistic strategies – as an integral part of a wider range of techniques of neutralisation that are used, for example, to provide linguistic relief from conscience and to suspend moral constraint – to silence both “inner protest” and public objections – to the political violation of social and moral norms; to justify acts that cause harm to others whilst also denying there is any subsequent harm being inflicted; to deny the target’s and casualties’ accounts and experiences of political acts of harm, and to neutralise remorse felt by themselves or other witnesses.

Media discourse has often preempted the Conservative austerity cuts, resulting in the identification, stereotyping and scapegoating of the groups in advance of the targeted, discriminatory policies. Media discourse is being used as a vehicle for the government to push their ideological agenda forward without meeting legitimate criticism, public scrutiny and without due regard for essential democratic processes and safeguards.

The five neutralisation techniques identified by Gresham Sykes and David Matza are: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners.

The really critical part of Sykes and Matza’s argument is that rationalisations precede immoral, cruel or controversial acts and are a key factor in making deviant behaviour possible (amongst delinquents, the mafia or Conservative ministers). As such, the rationalisations betray intent.

The cuts of £120 a month to the disability benefit Employment Support Allowance  are also claimed to be “fair.” and “supportive.” Though I have yet to hear a coherent and rational  explanation of how this can possibly be the case. Ministers claimed that people subjected to the ESA Work Related Activity Group cuts could claim PIP if they required support with extra living costs, but now we are told that PIP is to be cut, too.

Osborne’s techniques of neutralisation: calling a cut “increased spending”

The chancellor has defended his decision to use the cuts in disability benefits to fund tax breaks for the wealthy. On the Andrew Marr show yesterday, he was questioned about his decision to cut PIP, currently made to over 640,000 disabled people in a bid to save at least £1.2 billion. Many severely disabled people are facing a cut of up to £150 a week under the new reduced eligibility assessment criteria.

Controversially, the cuts to disability benefits will fund tax cuts for the most affluent – the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor is set to raise the threshold at which people start paying 40p tax, in a move that will probably see  many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax, in the coming budget. Mr Osborne says he wants to “accelerate progress” towards the Conservative’s manifesto pledge of raising the threshold for the 40p rate to £50,000 in 2020, it is understood. The average annual income in the UK is around £27,000. 

Andrew Marr said: You’re taking money out of the pockets of some of the most vulnerable people in this country, disabled people. These are the people who can least afford the sacrifice, the people with the weakest shoulders.

And you’re changing the rules to hit them. Is that really your priority?”

Osborne ludicrously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.”

But as Marr pointed out, the cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.

From January 2017, the cut to PIP is likely to hit sick and disabled people who face fundamental barriers to health and essential basic care. The cut, it is estimated, will affect at least 640,000 disabled people by 2020.

Andrew Marr went on to say: “At the same time as you’re raising thresholds to help middle-class tax payers, it’s going to seem a very callous set of priorities.”

However, Mr Osborne maintained that the brutal and uncivilised cuts were “necessary to improve the economic conditions in the UK”. He said: “Yes, times are tough. The fiscal situation is a difficult one. All Western countries are not productive enough.”

You can see the interview here:


Austerity and premature mortality

Since 2011, a year after the government began their austerity programme, mortality rates have increased rapidly. Advisers to Public Health England (PHE) have warned that the 4-year trend may be the worst since World War II.

Data from the Office of National Statistics shows a 5.4% (27,000) increase in deaths in the past year alone, prompting calls for an urgent investigation. The year-on-year rise, to a total of 528,340 deaths, is the highest since 1968.

PHE said the elderly were bearing the worst of Tory austerity cuts, with women suffering disproportionately, though this is partly because they live longer, however, it is also due to a growing crisis in the NHS and cuts to social care. Professor Danny Dorling, from Oxford University, an advisor to PHE on older age life expectancy, said:

“When we look at 2015, we are not just looking at one bad year. We have seen excessive mortality – especially among women – since 2012.”

Figures show that the number of deaths had been falling steadily until 2011, a year after the government began their austerity programme, when deaths rates began to increase rapidly.

Professor Dorling cited Tory austerity as the biggest cause:

“I suspect the largest factor here is cuts to social services – to meals on wheels, to visits to the elderly.”

Empirical research published two years ago demonstrated the high a cost the country paid in terms of health and wellbeing for the Thatcher administration’s economic and social policies. The study, which looked at material from existing research and data from the Office for National Statistics, illustrates that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature deaths of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and a widespread degradation of wellbeing. Co-author and researcher Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute of Health and Wellbeing said that deaths from violence and suicide all increased substantially during the Thatcher era in comparison with other countries. Regional inequalities in life expectancy between north and south were also exacerbated, as were health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

Professor Bambra also says that the welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7% in 1975 to 12% by 1985; poverty is well known to be one of the major causes of ill health and mortality. Income inequality also increased in the Thatcher period, as the richest 0.01% of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average by 1990. Other research (The Spirit Level) indicates that income inequality is internationally associated with higher mortality and morbidity.

Welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, refused to monitor the number of people who take their own lives as a result of the £120-a-month cut planned for those people in the work related activity group (WRAG), claiming employment and support allowance from April 2017. Concerns were raised in the House of Lords last week, when Baroness Meacher, amongst others, warned that for the most vulnerable, the cut was “terrifying” and bound to lead to increased debt.

Condemning the truly callous and terrible actions of the Treasury, she urged ministers to monitor the number of suicides in the year after the change comes in, adding: “I am certain there will be people who cannot face the debt and the loss of their home, who will take their lives.”

Many people have died as a consequence of the welfare “reforms.”

Not only have the government failed to carry out an impact assessment regarding the cuts, Lord Freud said that the impact, potential increase in deaths and suicides won’t be monitored, apart from “privately” because individual details can’t be shared and because that isn’t a “useful approach”.

He went on to say “We have recently produced a large analysis on this, which I will send to the noble Baroness. That analysis makes it absolutely clear that you cannot make these causal links between the likelihood of dying – however you die – and the fact that someone is claiming benefit.”

Actually, a political refusal to investigate an established correlation between the welfare “reforms” and an increase in the mortality statistics of those hit the hardest by the cuts – sick and disabled people – is not the same thing as there being no causal link. Often, correlation implies causality and therefore such established links require further investigation. It is not possible to disprove a causal link without further investigation.

Whilst the government continue to deny there is a causal link between their welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, they cannot deny there is a clear correlation establised, which warrants further research and political accountability.

Then they came for the ESA Support Group …

Despite the fact that this government face a UN inquiry into grave and systematic abuses of the human rights of disabled people, the blatant attacks on a social group with legally protected characteristics continues and the Conservatives continue to target disabled people for a disproportionately large and unfair burden of austerity cuts.

A government advisor, who is a specialist in labour economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group. To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. The Conservative definition of “the basis of need” seems to be an ever-shrinking category.

Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.”

I’m sure the private company Unum would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the company denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states. The settlement related to Unum’s handling of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions.

The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. By coincidence, the  company has been involved with the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right?

It’s difficult to see how someone with a serious, chronic and often progressive illness, (which most people in the ESA Support Group have) can actually “manage” their illness and “move back into work.” The use of the extremely misinformed, patronising and very misleading term manage implies that very ill people actually have some kind of choice in the matter. For people with Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure, for example, mind over matter doesn’t fix those problems, positive thinking and sheer will power cannot cure these illnesses sadly. Nor does benefit conditionality and being coerced into work by callously insensitive and medically ignorant assessors, advisors and ministers.

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed. 

Reform says the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessement have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut.

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.”

The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – PIP. However, as outlined, the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into hard work.

The current United Nations investigation into the systematic and gross violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK because of the Conservative welfare “reforms” is a clear indication that there is no longer any political commitment to supporting disabled people in this country, with the Independent Living Fund being scrapped by this government, ESA for the work related activiy group (WRAG) cut back, PIP is becoming increasingly very difficult to access, and now there are threats to the ESA Support Group. The Conservative’s actions have led to breaches in the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES – CRPD articles 4, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and especially 19, 20, 27 and 29 (at the very least.) There are also probable violations of articles 22, 23, 25, 30, 31.

The investigation began before the latest round of cuts to ESA and PIP were announced.

 

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Reverse the ESA disability benefit cut: sign the petition

Extend the PIP consultation & stop cuts to supporting terminally ill & disabled: sign the petition

 

Related

A tale of two suicides and a very undemocratic, inconsistent government

Paternalistic Libertarianism and Freud’s comments in context

Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records

Conservative governments are bad for your health

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

Benefits Assessor: How Long Are You Likely To Have Parkinson’s?

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