Francis Ryan writes painting sick and disabled people as ‘workshy’: that’s what Tory benefits cuts are all about:What’s worse: kicking someone because you’ve convinced yourself it will help them, or knowing it won’t and doing it anyway? This isn’t some abstract moral dilemma: with a new wave of “welfare” cuts set to come into force next week, a perverse ideology seems to be driving government policy.
Take the grim cut to Employment and Support Allowance, the out-of-work sickness benefit relied on by hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, mental health problems and chronic illnesses. From April, anyone newly classed by the Department for Work and Pensions as “Wrag”, or Work-Related Activity Group – people judged as so ill they can only take steps to prepare for future work rather than actually apply for jobs – will see their benefit shrink by £30 a week. That translates as a cur of nearly 30% (down to £73 a week) to a disability benefit already so meagre it’s leaving a third of recipients struggling to afford food.
If paraplegics and cancer patients having to skip meals isn’t grotesque enough, consider that since the policy was announced in 2015 ministers have sold it on the premise that cutting benefits will give disabled people an “incentive” to get a job – as if the reason someone with Parkinson’s has been out of work for a year isn’t that they can’t hold a pen because of their tremors, but because they’re enjoying the “easy life” on benefits.
It’s no coincidence that this move will see a disability benefit reduced to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance. By ending the distinction between healthy jobseekers and disabled people who – based on the government’s own assessment – aren’t “fit for work”, the Conservatives are sending the message that having a debilitating disability doesn’t mean a person needs specialist support or extra money, but simply a bit of motivation. This isn’t only a cut to a benefit but an attempt to alter the purpose of the system itself: it shifts “welfare” from an entitlement to help, to a discretionary means to change “bad” behaviour.
Similar thinking sits behind the limiting of child tax credit to two children, also coming into effect next week. The “rape clause” of this policy – which will see rape survivors have to prove that their third child was conceived from rape to be eligible for benefits – has rightly been criticised as cruelly intrusive, but the wider policy itself is based on the same legitimisation of monitoring poor women’s reproductive choices. It not only punishes low-income women who have “too many” children, but embodies the belief that the threat of punishment will somehow lead them to change their actions.
The same strategy has been the undercurrent to other cuts to benefits relied on by low-income parents in recent years. The work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, celebrated the “success” of the benefit cap in November with the boast that it makes sure people who are out of work “are faced with the same choices as those who are in work” – an unsubtle code for “have fewer children”. The difference is that with child tax credits, this judgment is now being applied even to working families.
Even before April’s cuts begin, it’s evident that they will not work. As far back as 2015, a parliamentary review by crossbench peers found that far from “encouraging” disabled people to stop claiming sickness benefits, the change will reduce their ability to take steps into work. Worse, the report – based on evidence from ESA recipients, charities, local authorities and health organisations – concluded that cutting someone’s benefits would diminish their capacity to even “think about work”.
At the same time, advocates of limiting tax credits will find that decisions around family size rarely fit inside politicians’ rules. Real life does not consist of scrounging women planning pregnancies based on tax credits, but of the complexities of lost jobs or low wages, blended families, broken relationships or failed contraception. By making parents poorer, this policy will do little other than hurt the children already born. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already warned that the limiting of child tax credits will help push 600,000 children into absolute poverty by 2022.
Are we expected to imagine this information is news to the government? It seems more likely that it’s something it is simply choosing to ignore. Just as with the benefit sanction system before this, this latest stage of cuts marks a near-sadistic willingness to roll out policy that does nothing but cause hardship.
Two-thirds of disabled people who currently rely on ESA believe that cutting the benefit will cause their health to suffer. There’s no doubt about where we’re heading: it’s wheelchair users in pain and parents going without dinner to feed their children. In a few days’ time, the government will press ahead regardless.