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Unsupported tropes used to cut disability benefits

One of the government’s most common tropes when it is discussing welfare is a desire to focus support on ‘the most needy’. Superficially positive, this trope actually allows governments to cut support from large numbers of people, so long as at least some – the ‘most’ needy – continue to receive support. This is a game that could continue to the point of supporting only the barest handful of people, as the circle of ‘most needy’ becomes ever smaller. With this sleight-of-hand, the government carries out harm whilst portraying itself as good.


Another common line is the goal of being ‘better off in work’. For some, who were engaging in part-time work, there used to be a cliff-edge where going from 16 to 17 hours of work meant the complete loss of benefits if the person were not eligible to proceed onto tax credits. But that cliff-edge does not occur under Universal Credit. Under UC, people always have more money if they are in work, because they may be able to receive top-up benefits. Whether they are ‘better off’ depends on whether their costs (childcare; commuting) exceed the extra income from work. This may not be the case, if they are facing the withdrawal of UC at 55% plus the loss of Council Tax Support (in my council, about 30%). But the government could help with this by providing proper assistance for childcare; improving public transport; and rolling in the withdrawal of Council Tax Support to UC so that only one occurs at a time (for the sake of local government, CTS withdrawal should occur first).


The government also likes to talk about what sick and disabled people ‘can’ do, instead of what we ‘can’t’. I’ve not previously commented on this line, but I’ve thought about it a lot over the years since I became too ill to work. The fact is that however depressing it is, my eligibility and need for social security is dependent on what I cannot do. It is the fact that I can’t work and that I struggle to walk that means I receive UC and PIP. Asking what I can do in order to assess my eligibility for benefits that are based on reduced capacity or function would make about as much sense as me going to a doctor and expecting them to diagnose me based on a list of what isn’t wrong with me.


The government uses all these lines because, to the uninformed and unquestioning listener, they can sound good. They fall apart very quickly, but if all you’re reading is a short newspaper piece in your favourite newspaper before passing on to the next news item then you might not be in the frame of mind for criticising what you’re reading. Still, when you see a government praise itself for delivering ‘unprecedented help for the most vulnerable’ when all it has done is uprate benefits in line with inflation, you might pause to wonder if maintaining parity is really quite that amazing. Or what government has been doing the rest of the time to make basic parity seem so good.


‘Value for taxpayers’ is another line that sounds good until you stop to think what it really means. It means that people who receive direct financial support from the state aren’t as valuable as those who pay (income) tax. It means that the luxuries of those with more than enough are more important than the needs of those who don’t have enough. It means a deliberate attempt to create an us/them society instead of working for social cohesion. It means a government shirking its responsibilities to all its citizens and ignoring the tools it has within its reach, merely to do – what? Allow more MPs and MPs’ mates to keep their excessive wealth, and buy votes at the next General Election from members of the public who are convinced by this divisive rhetoric that whilst we can afford to let them keep their wealth, we can’t afford to maintain disabled people in their currently already under-funded lives.


Unfortunately, all the nicest words in the world don't make reality. Especially when they're juxtaposed with 'value for the taxpayer'. Anyone can say they want fair, compassionate social security. Not everyone actually tries to deliver it.


The current consultation on Personal Independence Payment is a great example of this. The government has brought in all of the above tropes, and also claimed that PIP “is not providing support in the way that was intended.” How was it intended? Well, partly it was intended that more people experiencing mental illness would be able to receive support for the extra costs that they experience, and this has happened. PIP is also intended to be a cash benefit, so that we can have complete choice and control – a mantra that governments normally pretend to like – over where and how that money is spent, thus tailoring it exactly to our needs and ensuring it remains highly efficient.


What PIP doesn’t seem to have achieved is the real reason for introducing it, which was to cut the number of sick and disabled people receiving support for the extra costs that we experience. I say it doesn’t ‘seem’ to have achieved this, because the caseload is higher than the government projected. This is a common feature of sickness and disabled benefits. But as we don’t know what would have happened if the precursor, Disability Living Allowance, had been retained then we can’t actually say if PIP has reduced numbers or not.


A big part of the government’s problem is that it stopped collecting robust data on the number of disabled people in this country. In the interests of ‘harmonisation’, all national surveys started using exactly the same question as each other: do you have a health condition; and does it limit you (not at all/a little/a lot). This isn’t a hugely helpful question, as it depends upon people’s recognition of what they experience as being a health condition; and on using a very small scale to determine severity. Society is becoming increasingly good at recognising mental and physical illness, and this is bringing comfort to people who have struggled for years without understanding or having compassion for their own trials. It is reasonable and expected, then, to see an increase in the numbers of people who know that they have a mental or physical illness,


In my own family, my mother and two sisters would potentially have never known that they have a physical illness if it weren’t that I became ill enough to seek diagnosis and treatment. They could have spent the rest of their lives struggling and feeling guilty for that struggle, because they didn’t know that they had genuinely lower physical health than the norm. It is also common for adults to discover that they have ADHD, autism, or complex PTSD only after years and even decades of difficulty.


But the government can’t unpick any of this, because it stopped asking more objective questions such as whether a person struggles with stairs, or washing, or cooking. It captures whether or not people recognise that they have a health condition, but not the equally useful questions of what issues people face. It therefore can’t answer the question of whether disability has increased in the UK population or whether people who were already sick or disabled have become better at recognising that fact.


Without asking these sorts of questions, the government can’t begin to support comments like “the nature of health and disability has changed” in the last ten years. There is simply no reason to believe that it has. Beyond the impact of Covid in creating more people with ME/CFS-type illness and in delaying many people’s healthcare so that illnesses and injuries are prolonged and exacerbated, I’m not aware of any reason to believe that ‘the nature of health and disability’ has changed. Certainly not in the last ten years. Barring any major medical advancement that removes some impairment, injury, or illness from the disability pool, I’m not sure it’s ever going to.


Yes, we have more people surviving to adulthood with congenital conditions that previously would have seen their lives end in childhood. Yes, we have more people surviving, but not fully healing from, stroke or heart attack. Yes, we’re getting better at recognising various physical and mental illnesses. But there’s been no fundamental change to health or disability in the last ten years. It’s yet another meaningless line used by the government in a desperate attempt to find any excuse at all to make cuts to a new benefit – one that they themselves brought in – when the real issue is that it doesn’t give enough support to enough people.

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