Who's afraid of Welfare Reform?
- 31 Mar 08, 10:56 AM
Recently, in response to the statement that disabled people would get "No Special Treatment", the author of Benefit Scrounging Scum discussed her experiences of being on benefit and wrote of the coming reforms to Incapacity Benefit:
I don't think about what might happen to me if the government's proposed threats/changes actually materialise. I firmly push it to the back of my mind, burying it as deep as I can so not to be overwhelmed by panic and fear about a situation I can do nothing about.. [...] The kind of fear that is hard to describe. The type that sits, deep in the pit of your stomach and travels up in to your throat where if you let it it will clench it's fist and take hold starving you of breath.
A lot of people seem to be similarly afraid. Over at the Ouch Messageboard there have been a number of threads about the new benefit, Employment and Support Allowance which will eventually replace Incapacity Benefit. There will be two categories of claimant to ESA, those unemployed disabled people who need a extra help and support to get them back to work (the "Employment" category) and those whose impairments mean that they are unable to work (the "Support" category).
There's nothing wrong with these reforms in principle. The trouble is with the rhetoric. All the press coverage has been about getting people off their backsides and the politicians have done no better, trotting out all those familiar Myths about Incapacity Benefit. Anne McGuire reckons that just 20% of overall claimants will belong to the "Support Group" of the new benefit, i.e. people who are not expected to take part in work-related activities, an estimate which strikes me as very low indeed. That would be about 600,000 people, a figure lower than the number of people on Invalidity Benefit in 1980, at a time when we had a lower population, lower life expectancy (much lower for people with certain impairments) and far fewer women having paid sufficient National Insurance contributions. This is blue skies thinking through rose-tinted spectacles.
But am I afraid? Well a bit. However, the worst thing that could happen to me is if it was thought I might be able to work. But even then, I would struggle a great deal even to attend "work-based activities" and no sensible employer would look twice at me. They're not going to drag anyone from our beds and chain us up in call-centres, applying red hot pokers should anyone doze off. Nobody, disabled or otherwise, can actually be forced to work. All we can be subjected to is yet more hassle and insecurity - not good, but not disasterous.
Perhaps most importantly, the political success of Employment Support Allowance depends on a decent turn-around of people in the "Employment" category. The government need to be able to say that they've got X number of disabled people, or X percent of the people in this category, back into work. Since many employers are reluctant to take disabled people on as it is, either having the wrong people in this category or failing to provide them with the right help and support will make for some very uncomfortable statistics.
What's more, however angry people feel about scroungers, most people object to the idea of sick people being bullied by government agencies.
Therefore, the proportion of people in the "Support Group" will only remain low if the aims of ESA are actually successful. And, if they are successful, then nobody will have anything to complain about; a load of disabled people will be in work who wouldn't be otherwise, and those of us who are more ornamental than functional will get a bit more cash. Plus, the political need to make ESA work will hopefully make the government apply a great deal more pressure to employers who don't take access seriously and fail to consider disabled candidates, thus benefiting all disabled people, including those who were never on Incapacity Benefit.
I've got nothing good to say about the government's handling of the reform; the careless words of politicians and dubiously qualified "advisers" have caused incalculable harm, raising the suspicion and mistrust of disabled people and making scapegoats of some of the most vulnerable people in society. However, ESA might actually be quite a good idea.
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