Increasing employment rates was one of the key tenets of the Chancellor’s Budget this week, with measures announced to encourage people back into work to fill the UK’s 1.1 million job vacancies.
Jeremy Hunt also announced benefit reforms that aim to “remove barriers to work” for disabled people and those with long-term illnesses, included within a new Health and Disability white paper published this week.
The main reform is scrapping work capability assessment (WCA) – the process that decides whether someone with a health condition or disability is capable of working. The outcome affects how much Universal Credit (UC) payment an individual gets, which is the benefit given to people to help with their living costs if they are on a low income, out of work or cannot work. Instead, the government is proposing that disabled people will receive this extra UC payment if they already receive personal independence payment – the benefit that specifically helps disabled people and those with long-term health conditions with their living costs.
This change would encourage more disabled people to seek work, said Hunt, as it would remove the “fear of losing financial support” if they did get a job. Disability charities report that the WCA has consistently failed disabled people through incorrect assessments, by accusing them of faking evidence. There has also been a reported reticence to re-administer benefits after an individual gets a job but later no longer has one, such as in the case of a temporary work contract.
Campaigners have welcomed the government’s intention to get rid of WCAs. James Taylor, executive director of strategy at disability charity Scope, describes the measure as “fundamentally flawed” and a “rigid tick-box exercise that causes huge amounts of anxiety” for disabled people, and which has created distrust between them and the Department for Work and Pensions.
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However, the Chancellor also announced that there would be a more “rigorous” enforcement of sanctions on those who are deemed able to work but who do not meet requirements, which would mean loss or reduction of benefits. Work coaches will be given more power to enforce this. Charities are concerned about these stricter rules. They worry the new measures will consider the structural barriers that stop disabled people from entering the workplace, such as employer discrimination, lack of workplace support and adjustments, and inaccessible transport.
“The government must make sure it doesn’t replace one out-of-touch test with another,” said Taylor. “For far too long, disabled people have been faced with degrading benefits assessments, cruel sanctions and a dearth of tailored support to find suitable jobs.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy officer at charity Disability Rights UK, describes the focus on employment as a “system geared to driving disabled claimants into seeking and applying for jobs”.
“Those disabled people who can work need support to do so, backed up by the provision of reasonable adjustments by employers,” he said. “However, those disabled people who can’t work or can only work limited hours need protection from sanctions.”
Taylor added that “forcing disabled people into unsuitable work with the threat of sanctions will be disastrous”, as this will push disabled people further away from work. While the Chancellor has said that harsh requirements will not apply to people with health conditions, he “fear[s] this won’t be the case in reality”.
In the Budget, Hunt also announced Universal Support, a new voluntary employment scheme for disabled people working with employers. It will enable up to 50,000 people per year to get jobs, and “additional work-coach time” for people claiming the health component of UC. A funding injection of £400m will also go towards increasing the availability of mental health and musculoskeletal services in England and linking them up with employment support.
Campaigners have welcomed these employment programmes but stressed that disabled people must be involved in their design and development to make them effective and appropriate. Charities are also calling on the government to do more to help with the cost-of-living crisis, as disabled people face high additional expenses for things such as running specialist home equipment. Even before the crisis, some disabled people’s household bills were nearly £1,000 more per month than the average household.
Gemma Hope, director of policy at the charity Leonard Cheshire, added that it is disappointing the Chancellor did not announce a social energy tariff to bring down energy bills. “The Budget fails to deliver targeted support for disabled high-energy users,” she said. “The government must ensure disabled people are supported and not pushed into financial hardship.”