As widely trailed in the general election campaign and in the run-up to budget day, the Chancellor’s Summer 2015 budget included devastating cuts to social security and tax credits, effectively summarised by Disability Rights UK. Despite Osborne’s oft-repeated assurances, in both this and the last Parliament, that disability benefits would be excluded from cuts, there is much in the budget to cause deep concern for disabled people. As in previous rounds of cuts, this is because disabled people rely as much, if not more than non-disabled people, on “mainstream” benefits – such as housing benefit and tax credits.
However, this time the Chancellor also let his axe fall on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, which replaced Incapacity Benefit), for disabled claimants or claimants with a long term health condition/chronic illness who are unable to work. Under the Welfare Reform and Work Bill (link is to background information and Commons research briefing on the Bill), from 2017, new claimants in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) – supposedly for those who are unfit for work, but able to undertake some form of work-related activity and possibly return to work in the medium term – will receive the same level of benefit as those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).* They will thus be around £30 per week, or £1,500 per year, worse off than they would have been without this budget cut. Those in the ESA Support Group, who are deemed to be too disabled or sick to work or to undertake any work-related activity, are not affected.
It is important to understand that ESA claimants in the WRAG are not fit for work, as certain prominent Conservative MPs erroneously and misleadingly sought to claim in the aftermath of the budget. On the contrary, many claimants in the WRAG have progressive conditions such as MS or Parkinson’s and all have significant impairments that affect their ability to work. For more information and case studies on the characteristics of claimants in the WRAG, see the Spartacus ESA Mythbuster.
The implications of this huge cut to ESA are briefly explored in the Spartacus response to ESA cuts. The cut is a deliberately retrogressive measure, in contravention of the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The Chancellor’s stated intent is to further incentivise claimants in the WRAG to seek employment, but this proposal ignores the structural labour market barriers to employment for disabled people, such as inaccessible workplaces, discriminatory attitudes and the traditional format of paid work, that excludes those who need a more flexible way of working. The proposal is built on the premise that the main barrier to disabled people getting into work is lack of motivation, whereas in fact, for most claimants in the WRAG, it is their illness or impairment that prevents them from entering employment.
Organisations representing disabled people have highlighted some of the likely impacts of this proposal. For example, the Disability Benefits Consortium points out that this measure will hit disabled households hard, further increasing the number living below the poverty line, which has already risen by 300,000 over the last year. Paul Farmer of Mind says the cut to the WRAG is “insulting and misguided”, pointing out that people with mental health conditions face considerable barriers to employment and that those in the WRAG typically take around four times longer than JSA claimants (without mental health difficulties) to find work.
In his blog, Why the budget’s cut to ESA may backfire, Ben Baumberg, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent (and something of an expert in incapacity benefits), makes some very pertinent points. Drawing attention to the flawed Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which determines whether a claimant is placed in the WRAG or the Support Group, Ben says:
… not only have all of the people in the WRAG been found to have limited capability for work, but the flaws of the WCA make it difficult to claim that all ‘seriously’ or ‘genuinely’ disabled people (whatever those might mean) are in the Support Group.
He concludes that the effective abolition of the WRAG is likely to push claimants further away from work and incentivise claimants to qualify for the Support Group, if necessary by appealing the outcome of their WCA. Once in the Support Group, there will be no incentive for claimants to try anything as risky as working, thus defeating the stated aim behind this Budget proposal. Do read Ben’s blog, which is well-argued and persuasive, in terms of the likely impact of the Chancellor’s proposals for the WRAG.
It remains to be seen how this particular Budget measure will be perceived once it has been implemented in 2017, but it is difficult to see large numbers of claimants in the WRAG securing employment, given the significant barriers they face. On the contrary, it seems likely that MPs on all sides of the house, as well as journalists and the general public, will see an increasing number of seriously ill or severely disabled claimants experiencing serious hardship as they seek to live on £73 per week for a significant length of time. Such claimants will indeed be on the road from #WRAG2ruin.
* The corresponding change will be made to Universal Credit.