The welfare reform debate is confined to a single question: which Party can make it most difficult to get onto and stay on social security benefits. And because successive governments have struggled to develop programmes which genuinely help people into employment, the focus of welfare reform has increasingly become one of making access to social security as frustratingly complex and insecure as possible and of managing individual behaviours within a scheme of required activities and punitive sanctions for non-compliance, such that people who fail can have their benefits justifiably cut. So toxic is the debate surrounding welfare reform that anything which deflects from this core goal merely bounces off, attacked as celebrating a ‘something for nothing culture.’ There is simply no space for alternative ideas to breathe.
This is why welfare reform does not then offer a viable political or practical vehicle through which to anticipate improving the living standards of disabled people and people with long term health conditions in the immediate term. Sure, defending against further regressive cuts may be important, but focusing all campaigning efforts on the benefits system is a strategic and tactical mistake. Not only is doing so largely futile in this political environment, it also ignores where the real opportunity to improve living standards and opportunities lies. We need to campaign outside of this space.
The strange thing about the years since the financial crash of 2008 is that unemployment didn’t rise to anything like the levels of previous economic downturns. Disabled people’s employment was not disproportionately affected by the downturn either. And now employment is growing as the economy begins to recover. Disabled people and people with long term health conditions should benefit from this recovery. This is why if campaigners genuinely want to tackle poverty and ensure an adequate standard of living for disabled people and people with long term health conditions they will use the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act next year to launch a major campaign on the right to work and employment
‘But…..’ I can already hear people saying ‘….what of those who cannot work?’ Well, bear with me and I will explain why my proposal is designed genuinely to ensure ‘work for those who can, security for those who cannot.’
The right to work and employment is entirely different to an obligation to engage in ‘work focused activity’ as a condition of receiving benefits. Campaigning for people to have opportunities for work and employment is not the same as campaigning for people to be made to do work. A focus on the right to work and employment places the emphasis on addressing the factors which deny people opportunities to do so, like the availability of suitable jobs, discrimination, access to education and training and critically the nature of work itself and how accommodating this can be to people requiring atypical working arrangements.
The opportunity here is not only to pinpoint these barriers and to generate new momentum to secure their removal, but in doing so to also expose the distance which continues to exist between many people and a real prospect of sustainable employment. This in turn offers the prospect of exposing the blunt ineffectiveness of the Work Capability Assessment, the uselessness of the Work Programme and the unreasonableness of the increasingly punitive conditions and sanctions faced by those who are excluded from the labour market through no fault of their own. It allows us to demonstrate that unemployment is not a matter of individual failure, but of systemic failure. Yet unlike many recent campaigns against welfare reform, the price of doing so need not be the deliberate lowering of expectations or of disability activists appearing to turn their backs on rights and equality.
This is why a campaign for employment and work – entirely removed from the toxicity of welfare reform – holds the prospect of promoting both opportunity and security. Any takers?