Last week’s “welfare reform” proposals represent an attack on the most vulnerable people in society.
The government tried to dress its plans up as “empowering people to work”. But they are mainly aimed at saving the treasury up to £7 billion over the next ten years.
No one will argue about changing the insulting title of “incapacity benefit” (IB). But changing its name to “employment and support allowance” does not guarantee either support or employment.
The government says “reform” is necessary, because the kind of people claiming IB has changed: “No longer is it just those from the industrial heartlands. The south east has more claimants than the north east.”
This is nonsense. While there are larger numbers of people claiming IB in the south east, they make up just 5 percent of the local population, compared to 12 percent in the north east.
IB claimants make up more than 10 percent of the local population only in those areas where work is hardest to find for anyone – Northern Ireland, Wales, north east England, north west England and Scotland.
New Labour’s mantra that individuals must “meet their responsibility to re-enter the labour market” shows how little they know of the reality of life for disabled people.
Every study has found that despite the Disability Discrimination Act, employers openly discriminate against those with a history of long term illness or disability.
Many people dependent on IB are ill or disabled as a result of work related injuries, or from the “wear and tear” of years of manual labour.
A “bad back” is often seen as a joke, but it is one of the most common work related injuries among construction workers or anyone who has to bend a lot – carers and nurses, for instance.
So why have numbers on IB risen over recent years? It’s partly because more people consider themselves disabled.
In particular, there has been a huge rise in the number of people identified – and identifying themselves – as having mental health impairments. Also, the increased participation of women in the workforce means that they are more likely to claim IB if they become disabled.
New Labour’s benefit cuts are not going to help ill or disabled people back to work. In fact, research has shown that the stress of trying to live on low wages and lower benefits leads to mental ill health, particularly depression. So benefit cuts – and the threat of them – are likely to make even more people ill.
Most disabled people want to work. New Labour ministers quote schemes that have helped disabled people into employment.
Where these exist and where there are jobs, they can make a real difference.
But these “reforms” are being introduced as huge numbers of civil service jobs are being cut in those very departments that are supposed to be helping people into work.
Disabled people should be enabled to contribute to society according to their abilities while being supported according to their needs.
A government that was serious about improving the lives of disabled people would fight for a supply of decently paid jobs open to all, adequate benefits for those unable to find suitable employment, and sufficient support staff and services. New Labour offers none of these.
Goretti Horgan is chair of the Northern Ireland Anti Poverty Network. She writes here in a personal capacity.