As the new Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb sets out his stall on benefits and welfare, Ruth Patrick finds that he has a lot to do to if he’s to court approval from disabled people.
For six long years, Iain Duncan Smith ran the show at the Department for Work and Pensions, zealously seeking to reform our welfare state and transform the lives of Britain’s ‘welfare dependents’ by bringing them into the fold of hard-working families. And then he was gone. With Shakespearean drama and a resignation letter literally dripping with venom, Duncan Smith has departed stage left to be replaced with Stephen Crabb.
The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been preparing to make his first set piece speech on welfare this week, in which he will lay out his reform plans and seek to engender confidence in his ability to push forward with the Government’s welfare reform programme in ways which both deliver ‘fairness’ to the taxpayer, while also ensuring the ‘most vulnerable’ are protected.
Of course, his very appointment and his predecessor’s resignation were triggered by the Government’s ill-advised Budget that sought to hammer disabled people through cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) while simultaneously offering tax breaks and relief to the wealthiest in society. Never has the ‘all in it together’ mantra rung more hollow. Crabb was able to use his first intervention as Secretary of State to confirm the halting of the PIP cuts, although it remains unclear whether the saving will still be sought elsewhere in the welfare budget.
Crabb has also proclaimed a need to recognise the individual behind the benefit-claiming statistic, to treat people with compassion, and has promised to start a new conversation with disabled people to find out what help and support they actually need. This rhetoric sounds positive, but it is bound up in ongoing reforms that will deliver only more poverty and insecurity to disabled people. The £30 cut for those in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) remains on the statute book, and Crabb shows no inclination or intention to U-turn here.
Indeed, he was one of several prominent Conservative politicians who not only voted in favour of the ESA cut but who also issued misleading and downright incorrect statements, which suggested that those in the WRAG have been judged capable of work, and so the reform is fair and not targeted at the oft-quoted but never clearly defined ‘most vulnerable’. Such a statement was at best poorly informed and at worst downright malicious, and has led some such as Jules Clarke, a disability activist who has been personally affected by chronic illness, to accuse Crabb of setting out to deceive the public. As Clarke put it to me:
“When it was revealed Crabb said the cuts to WRAG were justified, the whole thing was based around a stream of statements that said that those in the WRAG could work, and so didn’t need a premium. Not just Crabb, but many ministers and MPs were espousing the same message.”
Other disability activists describe Crabb as a yes man, noting his voting record in consistently supporting the government on social security measures. Michelle Maher, an activist for WOW Petition, told Disability Now why she is not optimistic about Crabb’s appointment:
“The appointment of Stephen Crabb does not fill me with any hope. His voting record speaks volumes. He has backed every single cut for disability support, the last being the ESA cut of £30 a week. He has no record of standing up for us at all, a Tory yes man. I have no doubt he will claim the expected changes to the ESA WRAG group are for the good of disabled and sick people. He will reaffirm cuts are for our benefit whilst sick and disabled people are continually left in fear and humiliated.”
Undoubtedly, Michelle Maher’s comments will resonate with many disabled people. At the same time, however, 2016 feels like a critical year for disabled people, with a White Paper on disabled employment due out imminently and a concerted policy focus on how to effectively support disabled people into work. Interventions such as Matthew Oakley’s report for the Social Market Foundation, which calls for a scrapping of the Work Capability Assessment and voluntary employment support for disabled people, are important ones and suggest that some significant, even positive reforms could be in the pipeline. For these reasons, it feels like there’s a case for taking Crabb’s offer of a conversation seriously. He may so far have appeared ill-informed and all to ready to take a salami slicer to the social security budget, but who says the man is not for turning. He’d be a fool not to.