The Chancellor may not have done some of the things people feared in relation to disability benefits, but, says Professor Peter Beresford, his measures are likely to disadvantage us further
Whether disabled people have jobs or not, the Conservative budget compounds the difficulties now facing them. While the political rhetoric is of moving disabled people off benefits into work, the budget does little if anything to help them secure jobs and careers.
Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s organisation and network, recently held a national workshop in York to explore disabled people’s responses to current disability policy. What was interesting was how many disabled participants were working, either as volunteers or in paid roles – however, as big a concern among them as welfare reform, was the poor support they often got to help make employment possible. Disabled people taking part highlighted inaccurate information about ‘Access to Work’ support and limited training and career development opportunities.
The budget is only likely to add to these difficulties. The ending of educational maintenance grants announced in the Budget and their replacement with loans and reductions in further education budgets will create even more barriers in the way of disabled people’s successful entry into and progression in the labour market.
Cuts to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments (of around £30 per week) for new claimants deemed capable of ‘work-related activity’ were confirmed by the budget – with no evidence that they will help service users get into work. The Independent Living Fund, which did improve disabled people’s life chances, on the other hand, is now officially dead and local authorities who will be meant to make up the difference now know from the Budget that they can expect years more of deep cuts in their budgets. At the same time, disabled student support allowances are to be cut and financially pressed universities meant to make up the difference. The Government also has its eye on cuts in Access to Work support. Deaf workers are particularly worried about cuts in communication support. All of these developments are likely to limit disabled people’s employment opportunities.
While the Chancellor has said he will honour his financial commitment to the NHS, no more money is forthcoming for the already chronically cashed-starved social care sector – on which disabled people broadly defined and others with long term conditions are particularly reliant to maintain their independence.
Coalition welfare reform policies came under particular criticism for targeting and scapegoating disabled people. Years of effective evidence-building by disabled people about the failings of welfare reform and high profile opposition, do not seem to have led to any serious understanding or response from policymakers. There is still no serious political recognition of the ‘costs of disability’, let alone the help that families need to support members with learning difficulties, mental health problems, or physical and sensory impairments.
The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, in its response to the budget said that:
The changes overall are regressive – taking much more from poorer households than richer ones. Looking over the period of the consolidation as a whole, poorer households have done worse than those in the middle and upper middle parts of the income distribution.
This reflects the view of political opponents of the Chancellor’s welfare reforms, like the Green Party, who have described the budget as a ‘divide and rule’ policy. But by drawing more groups into the orbit of welfare reform, young and older, working as well as unemployed families, it may also encourage new understandings and alliances between them and disabled people. It is difficult to be known how far-reaching the consequences of planned welfare reform may be, for example, what increases in rates of physical and mental ill health, homelessness and family and even community breakdown they result in. At the same time welfare cuts may foster new patterns of mobilising among disadvantaged people, who haven’t related to each other in the past, including disabled people, strengthening opposition at both community and political levels.
Disabled people and mental health service users have felt harassed by successive governments determined to get them off benefits and into employment however unsuitable it might be this crude binary of employment meaning independence and benefits spelling ‘scrounger’, persists as the dominant political mantra. Yet as some groups with long-fterm conditions have highlighted it is unrealistic and destructive for some disabled people.
What lesson should we learn from this budget? While for governments disabled people may have been seen as low-hanging fruit to test out their residualising social policies, the plan now clearly is to roll these out to many more people.
What policy wonks may not have thought through is that policies which are visibly divisive and target very many disadvantaged people may have their own political as well as personal fall-out. The process of finding out, however, is likely in the meantime to lead to much suffering for disabled people and the other groups affected.