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The Catastrophe of Disability Welfare Within the UK

  • Published: 2014-06-30 (Revised/Updated 2014-11-28) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: PhD student Paul Dodenhoff essay regarding the recent disastrous changes to the UK Disability Welfare system.

Quote: "Since 2008, 878,000 new employment and support allowance claims have been closed before the claimant was able to be assessed and 729,000 have been found "fit for work" by tests. Since May 2010, 527,000 employment and support allowance claims have been closed and 414,000 found "fit for work""

Main Document

What caused the global financial crisis of 2007/2008A crisis that has driven austerity measures in most European countries ever since, and austerity that has particularly been directed at the poorest people within those countries. According to the former chairman of the UK's Financial Services Authority in 2013, Lord (Adair) Turner, this question had a very straightforward answer:

"The financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 occurred because we failed to constrain the
financial system's creation of private credit and money."

In short, the financial crisis of 2007/2008 occurred because the 'powers' that be failed to curtail the aggressive money making antics of the world's most powerful banks and financial institutions. Antics partly centered on creating 'new' money in order to provide 'easy' credit and 'cheap' loans that actively encouraged single and multi-property ownership within both the US and the UK, driving up house prices in both countries to an unsustainable level.

When the housing bubble finally burst, the global financial system was in serious danger of complete collapse, triggering worldwide economic instability and a global recession, a situation only re-stabilized by pumping trillions of dollars of taxpayer's money into the system. It was therefore through the avarice of the world's leading financial institutions that the last financial crisis was caused, plunging countries worldwide into recession, where many needed and indeed received massive financial bailouts from the EU and/or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to survive. A course of events that have led to the austerity measures that are now in place within most of Europe itself, including the UK.

This history lesson is worth remembering, because as the years roll on, the general public, particularly within the UK, are in danger of losing sight of that fact, as politicians from all sides deftly shift attention away from the avarice of the financial institutions themselves, and towards the behavior, morality and general 'worklessness' of both the unemployed and the disabled.

Here is an up to date extract from the UK's Department of Works and Pensions, describing its welfare changes as part of the UK's governments continuing package of austerity measures, aimed at reducing the national debt:

"Many people on benefits believe that the financial risks of moving into work are too great. For some, the gains from work, particularly if they work part-time, are small, and any gain can easily be canceled out by costs such as transport. The government believes that the current system is too complex and there are insufficient incentives to encourage people on benefits to start paid work or increase their hours. We are aiming to make the benefit system fairer and more affordable to help reduce poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency and to reduce levels of fraud and error"

(www.gov.uk/government/policies/simplifying-the-welfare-system-and-making-sure-work-pays)

While the above extract talks about developing a fairer system, it contains a number of sweeping assumptions and generalizations about the 'welfare' system within the UK that need clarifying and amplifying.

Firstly, according to the UK government, 'many' people within the UK (including the disabled) would sooner stay on welfare benefits than find employment or work longer hours, because it just isn't worth their while to do so. Secondly, the current system therefore pays claimants far too much which is a disincentive when looking for work, generating a dependency on welfare. Thirdly, the current system is unaffordable partly because it is riddled with fraudulent claims and/or errors.

However, where is the evidence that these assumptions are actually accurate? Assumptions that have had a disastrous effect, not only upon the unemployed within the UK, but also its disabled.

Benefit fraud/error within in UK is estimated to cost on average less than 1% of the overall welfare budget per year, so while these sums of money may still be quite large, they are much less than the general public are often led to believe. However, it is such claims over a diminishing work ethic and growing benefit fraud that have continually been made by both the UK government and the British media since the financial crisis began. So much so, that in 2011 the Glasgow Media Trust reported that the general public actually believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits within the UK were indeed frauds. No surprise then, that between 2008 and 2011 'hate crime' directed towards disability itself within the UK had almost doubled.

Currently within the UK there is a growing protest movement, not only as a direct reaction against the effects of the austerity burden placed upon the unemployed and disabled community, but also over the misinformation surrounding welfare provision within the UK. Misinformation that is arguably used to sell cuts in UK welfare provision to the general public, but does so by generating a 'moral panic' over the behavior of both its unemployed and the disabled. A 'moral panic' that has had shameful consequences.

Moral Panics, Low Wages and Discrimination.

The welfare state is indeed a big part of British society, with 64% of all families receiving some kind of benefit and with 30% of that group receiving more than half of their income from such benefits. Welfare spending is therefore a large slice of all public spending, averaging about 23% of all spending and therefore one that generates continual concern by every UK government that comes into power. However, very little of the annual UK welfare budget actually gets spent upon either unemployment or disability itself, with unemployment and disability benefits amongst the smallest in terms of overall welfare cost.

To clarity Britain's welfare system, both working people and non-working people of employment age become eligible for welfare benefits if their income is deemed as falling below what is required for a minimum standard of living. So, welfare payments within the UK are not made out of some kind of national generosity, but purely out of the necessity caused by low incomes, and to be more precise, low wages.

In 2007-08, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK calculated that 23 per cent of the British population actually live in poverty - around 13.5 million people. Even more recently, The Living Wage Commission within Britain calculated that out of those 13 million people living in poverty, 6.7 million are actually in households where somebody is in employment. In addition to those people that live in poverty, there are many that exist just above the poverty threshold.

So, welfare within Britain is not one necessarily born out of idleness nor of an over generous system. If you are in receipt of welfare benefits within the UK, then you are most certainly living in poverty, and it doesn't matter if you are in employment or not.

Traditionally, the UK economy has had a deep rooted dependency on low wages, the legacy of which means that working people today (both abled bodied and disabled) often need 'top -up' benefits from the state in order to survive. It is also a legacy which means businesses within the UK are effectively being subsidized by the state (or to be more precise, the taxpayer) in order to keep their wage bill low.

However, current employment within the UK can also be highly sporadic and highly unstable, with zero hours, short term or part time contacts. That's if you can find work at all, as employers can be found to discriminate against people for many different and contrasting reasons, including being long term unemployed itself, being over the age of 50, being a mum with dependent children, having a disability of some kind, having a spent criminal conviction, or if you just happen to be living in the 'wrong' location for the job concerned.

So in some ways, the Department of Works and Pension may be correct, there may well be a dependency on welfare within the UK today, but a dependency that cannot be blamed upon a lack of motivation to work on behalf of the unemployed or the disabled, but upon a low waged, unstable and discriminatory employment system, and one where people would work if they only could.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study in 2012 testing the theory that a long standing dependency on welfare exists within the UK, and found that only 1% of workless households actually had two generations or more that have never worked. This study also found that families experiencing long-term and persistent unemployment actually remained committed to the value of work and the 'work ethic' and would prefer to be in jobs rather than having to exist on benefits. Benefits that are often portrayed by the UK media as being ridiculously over generous, but where in reality, the UK actually spends less per head on benefits than the equivalent European economies of either France or Germany.

Changes to disability welfare within the UK, and its consequences

For the benefit of readers from other countries outside the UK, the changes talked about over disability benefits and currently being implemented within the UK by the Department of Work and Pensions, have been brought in to severely tighten up and monitor welfare provision to all disabled people within the UK itself. These changes mean that the disabled not only have to go through additional assessments and reassessments of their disabilities, but systematic reviews of those disabilities. The bottom line is, that they have to prove (again) that they are indeed disabled, in order to receive any help from the state.

Needless to say that these changes have primarily been introduced in order to save money and cut costs, not just to reduce fraud. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not if it causes immense distress and hardship to millions of disabled people within the UK, some of whom were barely struggling to survive as it was. And not if it causes a severe welfare 'meltdown' within the UK, which seems to be the case at present.

Here is an extract of a newspaper report taken from The Guardian, Wednesday 12 March 2014, quoting a leaked Government memo:

"the Department for Work and Pensions is struggling to meet 'extremely challenging' demands for over £1bn of efficiency savings over the next two years, and these pressures could disrupt plans to roll out benefits reforms".

To underline the concerns mentioned in the above, here are other newspaper articles outlining the severe impact of those changes upon the disabled themselves:

"Since 2008, 878,000 new employment and support allowance claims have been closed before the claimant was able to be assessed and 729,000 have been found "fit for work" by tests. Since May 2010, 527,000 employment and support allowance claims have been closed and 414,000 found "fit for work".

(The Observer 6/04/2013)

"A man took his own life after worrying about how he would survive after his benefits were stopped, a coroner has said. Nicholas Barker, a former farm laborer from Yorkshire, was already paralyzed down the left side of his body after a brain haemorrhage more than a decade before. He was found dead in his garden with a shotgun at his feet on December 10 last year, the 51-year-old had been due to attend an appeal hearing a week later against a decision to stop his benefits, his ex-wife told the inquest.

(Huffington Post 20/04/2013)

"A depressed blind man killed himself after he was left penniless because his benefits were slashed, an inquest heard. Desperate Tim Salter struggled to even feed himself when controversial private firm Atos ruled he was fit for work, despite his failing eyesight. The 53-year-old, who also suffered agoraphobia, was about to be kicked out of his housing association home when he hanged himself in the hall. A coroner ruled the Government's decision to axe Tim's meager incapacity benefit contributed to his death"

(The Daily Mirror 28/12/2013)

S ix per cent of doctors have experienced a patient who has attempted - or committed - suicide as a result of "undergoing, or fear of undergoing" the Government's fitness to work test. A survey of over of 1,000 GPs across the UK by ICM also found that one in five had at least one disabled patient who had thought about suicide because of the test, which is aimed at assessing whether people claiming incapacity benefit are fit to work. The survey, highlighted by Exaro, the investigative website, also found 14 per cent had patients who had self-harmed as a result of the test. The charity, Rethink Mental Illness, which commissioned the poll, said it showed that the work-capability assessments were pushing some of the most unwell and vulnerable people in society "to the edge".

(The Independent 4/10/2012)

"The Government has no idea how cuts are impacting on disabled people - and no intention of measuring. For disabled people, this multiple cut effect is even more significant, as they are far more likely to rely on several benefits to make up their income, due to their disability and their higher risk of being unemployed or on a low income. There are hundreds of thousands of disabled people across the country facing four, five, even six separate cuts to the benefits they receive, as the Government makes sweeping reductions to welfare spending. This is why a cumulative impact assessment (of the changes) is so important. At the moment, the Government has no way of knowing how much that disabled person facing six cuts stands to lose. They know how many people are affected by each separate cut, but have no idea how these might hit one individual, or the impact the combined cuts might have on a family's budget."

(The Independent 10/06/2013)

"Reassessments of employment support allowance (ESA) have been suspended as Atos grinds to a halt under the sheer volume of new applications, reassessments, and transfers from old benefits - and the new personal independence payment (PIP) assessments. There are no doctors assessing disability living allowance any longer, and PIP decisions are taking up to eight months. The bulk of PIP reassessments have also been deferred until after the 2015 election, just too toxic to expose to the electorate. The Work Program has failed almost completely to help sick and disabled people into work, with fewer than 1% sustaining work over the longer term. The new PIP benefit is resulting in a shocking two-thirds of disability claims being rejected, successful ESA appeals have soared to an unprecedented 43%, and tribunals say they cannot keep up with demand, leading to yet more frightening delays. Social care budgets, respite care, day centers and carers' support have been slashed by up to 40% up and down the country, leaving people with conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer and kidney failure increasingly isolated. Perhaps most shockingly, sick and disabled people are being forced into unlimited, unpaid workfare that takes no account of their conditions."

(The Guardian, 12/03/ 2014)

"Previously, I thought of disability hate crime (which rose noticeably between 2008 and 2012) as the sharp edge of hardship: as the economy tanked, people's lives became harder, mean people became meaner and attacked the undefended. It's impossible, now, to escape the conclusion that this is not human nature randomly showing its dark side but rather a social response to a systematic, top-down policy. This is austerity at its ugliest, it's most underhand".

(The Guardian 19/02/2014)

Hard hitting and shocking indeed. These articles not only highlight the effects of austerity measures within the UK today, but illuminate a political elite within Britain that is shamefully out of touch with the experiences of disabled people. As these measures have not only been introduced in order to cut costs, but attempt to do so by forcing as many disabled people as possible off disability benefits and into employment - no matter what that individual's circumstances are, nor of their fitness or capacity to work.

So, let's cut through these political shenanigans in order to look at some cold hard facts concerning disability and employment within the UK.

First up. There are approximately 10 million disabled people within Britain alone, 5 million of whom are above working and pensionable age. According to the Labor Force Survey, disabled people in the UK are now more likely to be employed than they were in 2002, but disabled people do remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people. For example, in 2012, 46.3 per cent of working-age disabled people were in employment compared to 76.4 per cent of working-age non-disabled people. However, the reason for this discrepancy is not entirely clear, and may involve a combination of issues, such as a genuine incapacity to work or sustain long term employment (through ill health) or mobility and travel problems. The disabled may also face immense discrimination over employment.

Additionally, a recent ESRC funded study found that employees with disabilities are also twice as likely to be attacked at work, or experience higher rates of bullying and harassment as employees without a disability, a fact that may understandably play some part in the percentage figures above.

However, what is clear is that despite the numbers of disabled that do work, a substantially higher proportion of individuals who live in families with disabled members actually live in poverty, compared to those individuals who live in families where no one is disabled. Not an indication of an overgenerous benefit system, but one that is designed to keep disabled people within poverty if they don't find employment, not out of it.

Secondly, the prevalence rate of disability rises with age. Only 17 per cent of disabled people within the UK are actually born with a disability, meaning that the majority of people acquire their disability sometime during their working lives. This is an important point, because while disabilities arise for many different reasons, often they are acquired through employment itself - such as work related ill health and stress, by accidents at work or accidents on the way to and from work, and by 'wear and tear' repetitive injuries.

Consequently, it is not just age that increases the likelihood of you acquiring a disability, but employment, and the type of occupation you have been employed in. Your type of employment and length of service may also determine at what age you are most likely to die. People are also far more likely to become disabled if they are on persistently low incomes, or have indeed been out of work for a considerable amount of time, or have low or very few educational qualifications.

So these facts call for a new political approach about disability, and one that is objective and fair. Indeed, the aim should be to get more people into employment, but one that also promotes higher wages, better working conditions, less discrimination and workplace harassment, and getting every individual educated to a decent standard, regardless of social class, personal income or ability.

The current changes to the disability benefit system within the UK and its after effects, are arguably amongst the most shocking episodes in Britain's treatment of disability within recent British history. It is not only a sign of how British politicians manipulate public opinion for their own personal prejudices and/or career aspirations, but how out of touch they actually are with 'real' people and the 'real' world.

"Paul Dodenhoff is a PhD research student at Lancaster University, Law School UK. This essay/article is written in a personal capacity. However, anybody wishing to support the research in any way, have an input into the research or be able to sponsor the research, may contact the author via the following email address: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk."


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