The U.K. government has come under fire from over 100 organizations in the country representing the interests of disabled people for what is seen as a series of proposed draconian measures aimed at forcing people with disabilities back into employment.
Comprising the ailing Conservative government’s £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan which will form part of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement due to be delivered later this week – the new measures will see the Department for Work and Pensions adopt more of a punitive approach to disabled claimants who fail to look for work – even if they are too unwell to do so.
Amongst the penalties provoking the most alarm across the disability community are threats to cancel vital entitlements to free medical prescriptions, basic legal assistance known as legal aid and top-up payments intended to assist with energy bills during the cold winter months.
The tipping point for receiving sanctions, which are due to be phased in slowly, would be a refusal to engage in so-called mandatory work placement trials whereby claimants would be forced to take up offers of employment or work experience. However, a critical issue with the current Work Capability Assessment, which is also being gradually phased out, is that it tends to penalize disabled claimants with multi-dimensional fluctuating conditions that change from day to day. Such assessments also commonly work against those who are less literate and capable of articulating precisely how their condition affects them. To make matters worse, the DWP is increasingly moving away from the use of medical evidence provided by an individual’s General Practitioner who is familiar with their case in favor of its own outsourced assessors.
Allied to the sanctions protocol are several concerning proposals for increased government surveillance involving entitlement to access a claimant’s bank account and smartphone-based geo-tracking to ensure attendance at certain mandatory activities such as visiting careers fairs.
In a 12-month political cycle culminating in a General Election at the start of 2025, many suspect that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s floundering Conservative party, which currently trails Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour by some 19.5% in the polls is playing to the gallery.
Adopting a tough stance on so-called “benefits scroungers” is likely to play well with certain segments of the Tory base and when one hears the tenor of language on the new reforms from ministers, it is certainly not easy to dismiss this as an impossibility.
“Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits,” Chancellor Jeremy Hunt pronounced last week.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride said, “If you are fit, if you refuse to work, if you are taking taxpayers for a ride – we will take your benefits away.”
One of the reasons the government has given for its stricter benefits regime is the post-pandemic shift to remote work amongst employers meaning that, in theory, disabled claimants who may have struggled with the norms of office life five years ago now have a much higher chance of obtaining gainful employment.
However, research by U.K. mental health charity Mind suggests that this is in fact not an opportune moment for remote work and that the stats are now trending in the opposite direction. According to a survey of 2,000 recruiters, home-based roles have dropped by 84% since the end of the pandemic.
Commenting on the research, Mind’s Chief Executive D.r. Sarah Hughes said, “It is clear the U.K. government’s proposals are based on false assumptions, and motivated by a desire to save money. Our findings prove that their arguments for cutting support don’t reflect reality and risk leaving people trapped between a broken benefits system and a jobs market which doesn’t exist.
“Poverty and ill health form a vicious cycle. To tackle the root causes of the number of people out of work, and to empower those who can get back to work to do so, the answer is to ensure that people can access financial support which covers people’s essentials and put in place better employment support.”
It is a viewpoint endorsed by Fazilet Hadi Disability Rights UK’s Head of Policy who told the Big Issue, “Instead of driving disabled people into poverty through lowering benefits and or forcing people into low paid work, the government should be doing more to support disabled people to flourish, by understanding the causes of higher levels of disability within the working age population, investing in employment advice and support targeted at disabled people and strengthening employment laws on flexibility and reasonable adjustments.
“Five million disabled people are in employment and many more would like to join us, so why doesn’t government focus on making this happen rather than penalizing those who can’t work?”
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