Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to examine the UK’s disability benefits system, claiming he wants to get beyond the current system of claimants being labelled either completely fit or completely unfit for work. This is welcome news, and if these reforms were being conducted by almost anyone else I would support them. IDS isn’t wrong to point out how unemployment negatively impacts mental health – an impact that may be even worse for people with disabilities; nor is he wrong to argue that people with disabilities want to work. What concerns me about this speech is the Conservative’s track record when it comes to helping people with disabilities into employment, or helping people with disabilities generally. Rather than reverse Labour’s introduction of the Work Capacity Assessment, the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition expanded it, and free of the mild moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats the Tories plan to cut the benefits received by those able to convince a panel that their disabilities are sufficiently real.
IDS has defended the reduction in disability benefits by arguing that the UK spends more on disability supports than the OECD average. While this is true, the OECD has also placed the UK amongst the least generous when it comes to actual disability benefit payments, and the UK spends far less on unemployment benefits than the OECD average. Unemployment spending and disability spending are inexorably in modern labour market s and increased disability benefits are often an ‘unemployment problem in disguise’, according to NorwegIain researchers Bernt Bratsberg, Elisabeth Fevang and Knut Røed. Many of those currently claiming disability benefits in the UK are probably miners, factory workers and other manual labourers whose former jobs no longer exist and who lack the educational qualifications to find work in the service sector. A large chunk of the people IDS wants off disability benefits aren’t out of work because of their health or because of discrimination, they’re out of work because there is no work for them. The UK’s high spending on disabilities is simply because policy makers are unable or unwilling to see the complete picture.
I doubt that the approach of the current government to disabilities – as well as other policy areas – is the result of maliciousness or a burning hatred of poor people instilled by years at Eton and membership of the Bullingdon Club. IDS’s former teacher believes the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions isn’t evil so much as out of touch, and I’m inclined to agree. Rather, the planned reduction in ESA payment amounts and the new project of encouraging work are great examples of ‘hepling’. Hepling is an attempt to help that is well intentioned, and it looks a lot like helping at first glance, but is driven by naivety and ends up neutral at best, destructive and dangerous at worse. Children in particular do a lot of hepling, as do dogs, and it can be rather cute, but in the case of government policies hepling is anything but cute. While I would love to be proven wrong, I doubt IDS’s ‘conversation’ will result in hiring quotas, more wage subsidies and supported employment programs, better education and better enforcement of the Equalities Act. Nor am I optimistic that the UK will set about tackling the structural unemployment that contribute to the UK’s stubbornly high numbers of unemployed people with disabilities. What I do expect will be ESA claimants who currently would receive benefits will only receive partial benefits and be expected to work 20 hours a week to make up the difference, without any support for them to do so. Hepling at its finest.