Photo: Scars at Sundown - a wheelchair abandoned in a junkyard from Wayne Stadler Flickr Photostream

Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) recently resigned from his position as the Work and Pensions Secretary having seemingly suffered a delayed bout of morality. In his resignation letter he explained that he felt the cuts proposed in #Budget2016 were ‘a compromise too far’. Unfortunately, Stephen Crabb, Minister for Wales and his replacement, who has ‘rigorously backed’ the cuts to welfare, seems unlikely to be similarly afflicted (late though it was) in terms of his moral outlook and ideology. Crabb supported the introduction of universal credit, the so-called bedroom tax, and the proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

PIP, the benefit designed to ‘replace’ Disability Living Allowance (DLA), is awarded to cover additional costs experienced by disabled people. Government monies available through PIP were substantially cut in the 2016 budget. Moral outrage at this cut was experienced not only by IDS, but by the public more generally with petitions gaining hundreds of thousands of signatures within days. Pressure on the government resulted in a U-turn on the proposed cut which will not now be implemented. However, despite large scale media attention and public indignation focused specifically on the proposed cut to PIP, changes to disability related benefits have been a significant feature of recent budgets and a major aspect of austerity ideology.

IDS, when in post, stated that he wanted to correct the issue of the disability employment gap by reforming the incapacity benefit assessment system and improving the levels of support for jobless disabled people who want to work. As with a lot of IDS policies, it was presented in a framework that gave it a degree of legitimacy. Indeed, lack of access to meaningful employment has long been described by disabled activists as a fundamental barrier to the liberation of disabled people. With meaningful paid employment, it is argued, comes economic validity. This is something long denied to the disabled community, who at best are rewarded for working where able ‘despite’ their impairment and at worst are considered passive dependents totally divorced from the labour market. However, here the similarity ends. Looking behind the sheen of legitimacy, it quickly becomes apparent that the reforms implemented by IDS and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) are driven more by fiscal rectitude rather than any attempt to better the situation of people living and working (or not working) with an impairment.

Central to any critical analysis of the disability gap (for example using the social model of disability which focuses on disabling environmental factors), is the suggestion that the workplace/labour market must change and evolve. The workplace, and concepts of what encompasses work should expand and accommodate a diverse (and representative) population of would-be (if only I could-be) workers. A key problem with the analysis used by the DWP under the tenure of IDS is that it didn’t appear to address any environmental alterations. The focus of his analysis remained the individual, and the processes he sought to enhance were processes that delivered people to the workforce (ready, able and willing?), but demanded little from the work environment.

In what could be argued to be a (un)remarkable example of political double speak, IDS parroted the language of disabled activists and scholars whilst being entirely unplugged from the material reality/circumstances of the labour market, the collectivist ideological underpinnings of the social model of disability or the excess costs for disabled people participating in environments designed with non-disabled people in mind.

Go back 12 months to the May 2015 budget. Then, George Osbourne announced that one tier of the current out of work sickness benefit Employment Support Allowance (ESA) would be reduced to the same amount as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) for new claimants from April 2017. A reduction of £30 per week. It is estimated that this will save £445 million per year, as part of the collection of changes to the welfare system. On 2nd March 2016 MPs (including, of course, both IDS and Crabb) voted to reject a House of Lords plan for an impact assessment into these proposed cuts.

ESA was introduced in 2008 by the last Labour government, as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit (IB), the primary income replacement benefit for people not working due to sickness or impairment. Under the ESA successful claimants are divided into two groups, 1) Support Group (SG) and 2) work related activity group (WRAG), based on the outcome of the ESA50 form and Work Capability Assessment (WCA), (at present carried out by Maximus). The support group (SG) are not expected to (re-)enter the labour force, are not subject to further assessments and are paid the higher of the two rates of ESA, the ‘big bucks’ in terms of benefits, currently £109.30 per week in the UK, or £73.10 for under 25s.

In terms of the WRAG category, the proportion of new ESA claimants placed in the WRAG rose from 24% when the benefit was introduced in 2008 to 30% at the end of 2010. It then fell to 16% in 2013, highlighting the subjective judgement involved in assessing the boundaries between the SG, WRAG and being fit for work – as it is highly unlikely that the number of disabled people in the population fluctuated to this degree. Currently, those in the WRAG, around half a million people, are paid at the lower rate; up to £102.15 per week (£57.90 for under 25s), have an annual reassessment, are expected to engage in work related interviews (WRI) and are sanctioned if they fail to meet these conditions. Research on the current cohort of WRAG ESA recipients showed that many have difficulties in affording food, heating and good health on the current rate.

Changes to WRAG ESA entitlement in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act included limiting contributory ESA to one year as well as preventing any new claims for ESA for 16-19 years olds due to insufficient National Insurance contributions (this was previously allowed and the recipients referred to as ‘ESA youth’). The work related activities that are part of the conditionality of the benefit are subject to the same laws as the workplace regarding ‘reasonable adjustments’, and JSA claimants are also subject to sanctions (fair’s fair). As part of the WRAG offer some local authorities offer wellness classes such as walking groups, CBT, help with CV preparation and training to change occupation.

There is a double bind in creating the group of recipients in terms of ‘work related activity’. Firstly, there is the suggestion that disabled people can complete ‘work related activity’, if this is left unchecked it could imply that they are able to work, and are therefore choosing not to work. Secondly, the removal of the disability-specific top-up suggests that their day to day existence is no more costly than someone that is not considered disabled.

These policies lead us to a point where we are left with 500,000 disabled people on out of work sickness and disability related benefits who are deemed able to do ‘work related activities’, with lives that justify no further expense than your average jobseeker. It becomes clear that the only agenda at work here is an economic one that is far from progressive.

These changes mark an unapologetic bastardisation of decades of political lobbying by, and demands of, disabled activists. It creates a stick, rather than carrot, incentive to engage in a labour force increasingly defined by a low-pay no-pay cycle for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic gradient. Arguably, it also expands the population of a flexible and transient workforce whose workplace participation is precarious and dictated by political agenda and ideology.

Consider this. Being non-disabled is a temporary state, and as such, in an ageing workforce with high numbers of people with chronic and long term illnesses the implications of this temporary status are worrying. IDS hung the ugly burden of accountability and personal responsibility around the necks of disabled people to terrible material affect, a legacy likely to be upheld by his successor.

The controversy around, and resistance to, the cut to PIP rightfully received national media attention and almost universal condemnation as an ‘attack on the most vulnerable’ . However, there is a risk that as our anger, and subsequent relief, has been directed to resisting this particular attack on disabled people that the changes to WRAG entitlement will be put on the back burner (as arguably the less vulnerable disabled group) and we will slip into the Victorian notion of deserving and undeserving. This falsely constructed and arbitrary division provides no challenge to the disabling barriers faced by people with impairments and/or long term health conditions to (re)entering the workforce and is antithetical to the aim of closing the employment gap. A benefit reform with no benefit, and that is the last thing we need.

Please find below links to both clicktivism and activism.

Link to gov petition;

Disabled people against the cuts;

About the author: Jennifer Remnant is a final year PhD student researching the employment consequences of a cancer diagnosis, with a background in Disability Studies. Her research interests include health, welfare, employment, disability and related social policy. In ‘down time’ she tries her best to either be up a mountain, or in a boat. She’s on twitter @JK_Remnant.