Will Britain's New Immigration Policy Impact Upon Disability?
Synopsis: This may be a case of a UK government stupidly applying sanctions upon itself, or little more than a cosmetic exercise to mislead a gullible, tabloid audience.1
Author: Paul Dodenhoff Contact: Paul Dodenhoff
Published: 2020-03-02 Updated: 2020-03-17
People with severe learning disabilities or mental health problems have often and consistently been placed into the fit-for-work or work related activity group -- rather than the 'support' group.
It's a system that focuses completely on 'functionality' and not 'incapacity' caused by any disability or illness.
Just over a week ago, the UK's Home Secretary Priti Patel, suggested in a round of TV and radio interviews that UK Companies will now need to train more British workers to fill employment vacancies when Britain's new immigration system kicks in. However, the UK is already facing a Labour shortage and business groups representing the farming, hospitality and care work sectors have all raised concern that the new system will impact upon British businesses and upon providing services.
In response to those concerns, the Home Secretary insisted it would therefore be necessary for businesses to look towards employing British workers and helping them to "up their skills and make their skills relevant" to the job market. In short, government is now targeting what the British establishment consider to be the 'economically inactive', 20% of the UK's working age population who are currently not in employment for various reasons. However, this group are not officially registered as 'unemployed', simply a group of people made up of full-time students, the long-term sick and disabled, the retired and those with caring responsibilities.
In an interview to BBC Radio's '5 live', when pressed about the feasibility of training 8 million people who are economically inactive for a variety of valid reasons, the Home Secretary merely repeated over and over again that 20% of the 'workforce' were economically inactive and therefore could be 'encouraged' into work. Completely ignoring the point also repeatedly made by the interviewer that the 20% are not actually part of the 'workforce' -- they are just people of working age.
To be described as being part of a labour workforce, one has to be available for work. The economically inactive are not actually available for work at that particular moment in time nor are they actively looking for work - although they may indeed move into work at any point in the future. But there are no prizes for guessing that there was no real explanation from Priti Patel of how such people could be 'encouraged' into working. Especially when the UK is effectively at 'full employment' already and therefore, we may have all the people who can realistically work, already in work. However, for encouraging the 'economically inactive' to enter work, we should arguably read that as meaning 'incentivising' or 'punishing' those on welfare benefits.
Two things struck me in particular about these new Government proposals. First, it's not just a disregard for British people in general, treating us all simply as cannon fodder for the workplace, but a total disregard for UK businesses and organisations who are already struggling to recruit staff. Particularly, the recruitment of care workers and NHS staff who are already in very short supply. For me, this revamped immigration policy is little more than government playing to the public gallery anyway, behaviour influenced primarily by the toxic debate surrounding immigration that was stimulated by the EU referendum in 2006, and Brexit. Government want to be seen as 'listening' to the public and one that is also willing to act. But it seems disingenuous to tell the British public that they are reducing immigration when the UK economy is actually very much dependent upon migrant workers and has been for many years. If immigration is reduced further, the economy will effectively go down the pan, as well as social care and health care provision. No other government in the world would seriously contemplate such a move and it is doubtful to me that the UK is even doing so to any real degree. This may be a case of a UK government stupidly applying sanctions upon itself, or little more than a cosmetic exercise to mislead a gullible, tabloid audience. A cosmetic move that leaves huge loopholes in the system where immigration can still trickle through?
A potential shortage of labour was highlighted as far back as 2006 by the Labour Administration and that was arguably one of the primary drivers for the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in 2008. I've argued for some time now that the reasoning behind the WCA was influenced far more by a shortage of labour than by that old British chestnut, benefit fraud. Proposals that also targeted elderly people by wanting older workers to stay in work longer rather than retiring. Take a look back at the policy papers for the WCA in 2016 and it was clearly designed to combat a shortage of labour caused by a falling birth-rate and an increasingly older population within the UK. Of course, there was also an underlying assumption present that sick and disabled people may also not be telling the complete truth about their health -- simply in order to obtain state welfare.
There is real no evidence presented to suggest that assumption is correct. However, an argument is put forward that just because you fall into one category of ill-health or disability, there is enough variation between claimants with the same condition that suggests some people may still be able to work while others cannot. Therefore, removing the medical profession from being both gatekeeper of welfare benefits and its police force, and handing that role over to state bureaucrats with a points based tick-sheet, is the establishments answer to the problem.
It's a system that focuses completely on 'functionality' and not 'incapacity' caused by any disability or illness. Anybody of working age who becomes ill or is disabled and needs to claim state welfare, has to go through the WCA process, sometimes repeatedly. As one disabled person said to me a number of years ago - "they keep checking to see if my legs have grown back". Certainly, the DWP claim that the system has been softened so that some people with long-term and life-changing sickness and disability don't have repeat assessments - if placed into the 'support' group. However, it is hard to gauge if this is accurate or not. No specific conditions have been named and the criteria so broad that this primarily comes down to the discretion of a DWP professional who may have no or little knowledge of the claimant's condition.
Something particularly true for those with learning disabilities or (hidden) mental health issues. And there are certainly people who are placed into the 'support' category that still go through the WCA time and time again. Campaigners have long argued that the WCA is flawed. Rather than being 'flawed' as such, I've argued that the WCA is doing precisely what it was designed to do, and that is to set the bar so high for sick and disabled people claiming welfare benefits that it pretty much excludes all but the severest of ill-health and disability. Especially, if government target setting is involved to remove as many people as possible off the system. Where the WCA is clearly flawed, is over the repeat assessments of people who will never be able to work, no matter how many assessments they go through. Flaws argued to be primarily caused by the application of a points based system where claimants are assessed partly on their answers to questions, and where reports do not always accurately reflect what was actually said during an assessment. There is absolutely no point in reassessing people who will never be well enough to work in any shape or form - or whom employers will immediately class as 'unemployable'. That is if we ignore the fact that putting people into the wrong WCA group may also motivate some just to abandon the system completely rather than facing the stress of an appeal tribunal. Which some disabled people indeed do.
As we all know, there are only three categories that the WCA can place sick and disabled people in:
- Fit for work
- Unfit for work but fit for work-related activity
- Not fit for work nor work-related activity (Support group).
However, disability organisations have highlighted that many people with severe learning disabilities or mental health problems have often and consistently been placed into the fit-for-work or work related activity group -- rather than the 'support' group. Causing immense distress and anxiety to the claimant and the claimant's family. And of course, whatever group you are placed in also determines the level of benefit you may be entitled to and how long. Having a disability also tends to be a costly business, so any reduction in welfare benefit can often hit disabled people extremely hard.
But finding people with complex learning needs, mental illness or even those suffering from terminal illnesses, fit-for-work or fit enough for 'work-activity', arguably doesn't change the fact that it may be completely unrealistic to expect some to function physically, intellectually or psychologically under such circumstances. Even if they could find an employer who would not completely balk at the idea of employing someone with either a terminal illness or a complex learning disability. Of course, the inaccuracy of the WCA may be indeed down to the flawed nature of assessing claimants with complex health issues and disabilities via a number of set questions and upon set criteria. Or as I often argue, an assessment that is deliberately set up to fail as many people as possible. And if they fail you and you therefore leave the system rather than fight it, or eventually commit suicide because of it, then a cynical government would arguably not be shedding any tears. Job done?
Placing disabled people with challenging learning or intellectual disabilities into anything other than the WCA 'support' group, being just one example. According to the charity Mencap, the numbers of those with a learning disability known to social workers to actually be in employment, has fallen over the years from 7.1% in 2011-12 to just 5.8% in 2017. While Office of National Statistics in 2019 reported that the official employment rate for disabled people with severe or specific learning difficulties was just 17.6% - the lowest of any disability category. Indicating that very few employers are indeed inclined to take on people with learning disabilities. And despite the triumphant trumpet blowing and flag-waving you generally get from the Department of Works and Pensions over claims that they 'helping' more and more disabled people into work, there are only slightly more disabled people in employment today than there was back in 2010.
Referring to Parliamentary Research Briefing papers released on 3rd January 2020, 3.4 million disabled people of working age are now classified as being economically inactive (i.e., not in work and not looking for work). To put that number into context, the same report estimated that 4.2 million disabled people were also in employment of some kind. We could argue that many of those 3.4 million people will have gone through the WCA process many times, only to be found unfit for work. With the majority placed into the 'support' group and unlikely ever to work. Therefore, disabled people of working age are almost just as likely to be out of work, than in work according to the stats, while also making up a huge percentage of the economically inactive.
Which is a major concern now that Priti Patel has seemingly set out a government agenda that intends to replace migrant workers with the 'economically inactive'. Because disabled people have already borne the brunt of brutal welfare cuts, government may simply be gearing up for yet another round of disability bashing. Particularly as Priti Patel herself as a long history of criticising British people for being lazy. While in 2016 as Employment Minister, Priti Patel defended benefit cuts to disabled people who had a 'limited capability to work' by stating that such cuts would indeed motivate such people to find a job. A Priti Patel who is also in the middle of a media storm as I write this, for allegedly bullying senior civil servants.
The second thing to note is how both disability and economic inactivity are often considered to be 'unemployment' by the powers that be. Priti Patel being just one in government who have constantly refused to acknowledge the fact that the 'economically inactive' are highly unlikely to be filing any job vacancies, because they are not actually available for work (the standard definition of being 'economically inactive').
According to Office of National Statistics released in January 2020, the numbers of the economically inactive are now also at a record low. So, it is a group of people that is arguably getting smaller not larger, and therefore may be less help to solving Britain's future labour shortages than government argues. But any outright rejection of the argument that being 'economically inactive' is not the same thing as 'unemployment', certainly points towards the options government may believe they have as regarding any negative consequences its new immigration policy may cause. Particularly a government who often argue that British people are unproductive, lazy and irresponsible and therefore in constant need of incentivising into both looking for work and obtaining work.
Britain's top anti-welfare warrior, Iain Duncan Smith, was even recorded on film back in 2016 defending the seemingly random application of benefit sanctions, simply because sanctions made claimants 'focus' on looking for employment. It is an Iain Duncan Smith who is also a vivid supporter and political admirer of Priti Patel. So, that is a clear indication alone of the direction in which the political wind is still blowing in the UK as regards its welfare system.
Of course, Britain's welfare system is a highly complex area where some of those considered to be 'economically inactive' may also be eligible for welfare benefits. However, that is not a given. Many disabled people have already been denied welfare support and those retiring early cannot claim the state pension until they reach the state retirement age. Students and single parents may be able to claim something - like housing benefits or income support. But if we take a look at government welfare spending overall, it is the state pension that is the biggest single expenditure of the UK's welfare budget - and by far. For example, there was 20 million people claiming benefits from the DWP in August 2019 and these can be broken down as follows:
- 13 million people of State Pension Age
- 3.3 million claiming Housing Benefit
- 2 million claiming Employment and Support Allowance (sickness and disability)
- 183,000 claiming Job Seekers Allowance (Unemployment)
- 372,000 claiming Income Support.
As we can see, the elderly and the sick or disabled together made up at least 15 million of 20 million benefit claimants in 2019 (arguably more) so it is no surprise that all British governments have been targeting both social groups since 2006. Disabled people with the WCA (together with benefit cuts or sanctions) and elderly people by continual increasing the retirement age, possible rising to the age of 74 in the future. All of which is arguably not primarily motivated by the cost of providing welfare, but about securing a continuing resource of workers.
Of course, those British pensioners who continually vote Conservative will take issue with the fact that I've classed the state pension as being a welfare benefit and pensioners as being welfare claimants. That is the bog-standard response whenever I use this argument. But this is what government themselves classify the state pension to be and by constantly raising the retirement age to arguably ridiculous levels, is sure-fire intent that the UK state pension has indeed been ear-marked for eventual removal. Especially if we compare the numbers of those receiving the state pension to those who are actually 'unemployed' in the UK according to the latest data -- 13 million claimants to just 183,000 claimants. So, who is costing both the state and the taxpayer more, Duh?
Of course, this is not all about the money, money, money. It's primarily about job vacancies and not having enough workers to fill them. There is certainly an opportunity for government to remove or reduce the welfare benefits of any social group that is considered to be 'economically inactive' and solely in order to 'incentivise' them back into work. Be they disabled people, students or single mums on housing benefit. Because that has arguably been the bog-standard weapon government has used against both the unemployed and disabled people since 2010. Where government has framed its rhetoric over welfare provision in terms of 'helping' to get people off the scrapheap of the benefit system.
However, for this administration there is no real excuse for not having a job, including being a student, retirement, family carer, sickness or being disabled. Sickness and disability have also been redefined to such a degree now, that they are not necessarily perceived as being any kind of block to employment. So, despite the rhetoric of 'help' that comes from government, this largely manifests itself in the actions of incentives - or to use a more correct term, punishment. A government narrative of 'help' that is misleading because as we all know, some disabled people may simply not be able to have a job, no matter how willing they may be. That is the bottom line that is continually and consistently ignored or denied by government.
Clearly, there are many disabled people who realistically cannot be expected to work and yet, are also being repeatedly classified as being either fit-for-work or fit for some kind of work activity. People who have to constantly appeal against DWP decisions, taking many, many months of fighting before it eventually goes before a tribunal judge. Take a look at the latest figures for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - benefits you may claim if you cannot work because of illness or disability:
New ESA Claimants
- Found Fit-for-work - 25%
- Not currently fit for work but placed into Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) -- 17%
- Not fit for work. Support group -- 58%
Compare that to ESA claimants who have repeat WCA assessments.
Repeat ESA Claimants
- Fit-for-work -- 6%
- Work related activity group -- 13%
- Support group -- 80%
First point to make here is that a staggering 77% of all benefit appeals to the DWP are actually won by benefit claimants. Latest statistics from the Tribunals Service highlight that sick and disabled people are also winning ESA appeals at the highest rate ever recorded -- 73%. In 2018, the DWP was found to have spent more than £100 million in just two years on administering reviews and appeals against disability benefits alone. In 2019, the DWP revealed that it have spent more than £26million in a single year running the appeal court that deals with such cases. With 77% of cases being won by claimants is this value for money? Clearly it not about the money, otherwise the DWP would logically stop this apparent stupidity. A success rate of 23% may indeed also seem like a serious win for a system that is now primarily set up to bully and cajole sick and disabled people back into employment.
Second point, for repeat ESA claims, the vast majority of people are still found as being completely unfit-for-work -- and arguably never will be fit enough. Yet many still have to keep going through the farce of work capability assessments and all the stress that causes. As we can see, at least 6% of repeat WCA assessments are found fit-for-work. Of course, some people may indeed be, but many of these findings will also be challenged. Compare that figure for new ESA claimants and it shoots up to 25%, a figure that will most definitely include people falsely assigned to the wrong group.
That said, there may be disabled people who can work and do want to work, including those with learning difficulties or serious mental health issues. And who would also find working beneficial for any number of reasons, if given the right support. Britain's labour shortage may therefore be an opportunity for any government to encourage and cajole British businesses to actually take on those disabled workers who can work. Supporting both employer and employee to do so. It may even be the best opportunity Britain has ever had in order to make serious inroads into employment discrimination and societies' general prejudices. Of course, this may only help a small number of disabled people who can work and very much depends on whether government really wants to grab that opportunity.
With a Conservative administration that arguably looks first towards beating British people into work, rather than supporting them, this seems a highly unrealistic suggestion. In my view, there is absolutely no way this Conservative government will not be tempted to bully and sanction even more sick or disabled people, in order to force some back into employment when the new immigration policy kicks in. Especially, as successive British governments arguably tend to see all of its citizens as simply being disposable fodder for the workplace.
There are three main reasons I want to give why:
- Government's appalling record on disability since 2010. It is a record that is highly unlikely to get better. Britain's government seem to have no sympathy nor empathy with anybody unable to work due to ill-health or disability. And with millions of disabled people still dependent for survival upon state welfare, they are basically 'sitting ducks' for any government to shoot at, as and when government feel they want to.
- It's in the political DNA of Britain's Conservative Party. British people are simply regarded as lazy, dependent and irresponsible by Conservative politicians. More so, if you are not in work of any description. Consequently, that world view or ideology influences political policy and the decisions these people make. And it should be noted that the Conservative Party in the UK is also widely termed, the 'nasty party'. For quite obvious reasons.
- A government that can't or won't distinguish between 'unemployment' and 'economic inactivity'.
And that last point is the one I want the reader to take away with them. According to official figures only 183,000 Brits are registered unemployed. Yet, there are more than 8 million people of working age that also don't have a job, don't need a job or are not looking for a job - for various reasons. Some but not all will be receiving welfare benefits of some kind, but certainly those on welfare benefits are by far the easiest people to target for behavioural change. If government thinks that students, the sick, disabled people, family carers and the retired should all be working, then that will be the only thing that matters to them. The consequences of removing state welfare from any of these people will not matter one jot. It is an approach that is aimed solely at 'incentivising' people to do what government wants them to do.
That is one of the problems I find with UK politics overall, that it is often completely short-sighted and reactive. 'Incentivising' people into work by the removal of welfare benefits because of a national shortage of workers, may seem like a good idea to some Conservative politicians, but what happens to those who genuinely cannot work? With a mind-set that views all people of working age who are not actually working as simply being lazy and dependent, if they are sick, disabled, family carers, retired or in full-time education, the solution will therefore be to remove the cause of that laziness. And if you are receiving welfare benefits, then the solution will be to remove or reduce those benefits.
I'll leave you with the story of Stephen Smith. A Liverpool man who died last year suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis and an enlarged prostate that left him in chronic pain. Stephen made headline news last year when shocking pictures emerged of him emaciated in hospital, ill with pneumonia and barely able to walk. Mr Smith had failed a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) work capability assessment in 2017, in which his employment support allowance (ESA) payments were subsequently stopped. Instead, he was told to sign on at the local jobcentre in order to receive £67 a week in jobseeker's allowance, visit the jobcentre once a week and to prove that he was actively looking for work. Mr Smith eventually won his appeal case against the DWP and his ESA reinstated, but only months before he died and only after appeal judges had witnessed how ill he was, for themselves. And to do that, he had to discharge himself from hospital where he was still being treated for pneumonia in order to attend the tribunal. After his death, the Liverpool Echo published two letters from two doctors who had been caring for Mr Smith - that had been completely ignored by the DWP. One stated that Mr Smith could not even walk more than 20 metres without stopping because of pain and breathlessness. Yet, this man was found completely 'fit-for-work'.
As I argued earlier, yes, the Work Capability Assessment is flawed in some ways, but it is arguably also doing what it was designed to do. And that is to force people like Stephen Smith back into work, regardless of ill-health. Mr Smith lived on his own but undoubtedly the logic behind such shabby treatment by the British government is that Mr Smith should either fend for himself by working - or turn towards family, friends or community for help. Dependence upon the state is now not an option. That is the political ideology that is throttling the life out of sick and disabled people in Britain today.
Both Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith have been peddling for many years, a political prejudice that British people are just lazy, irresponsible and deviant. The result is not just people being assigned to the wrong welfare group by a flawed work capability assessment, but people like Stephen Smith being bullied and harassed by the state when they are in serious ill-health and in serious stages of disability. It's not just cruel and brutal, it is also completely pointless.
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