Changes to Personal Independence Payment that will see 400,000 people receive significantly less financial support to overcome barriers to freedom and opportunity are expected to be announced in George Osborne’s hole in the public finances-plugging budget today.
At the same time under the rubric of investing in growth and opportunity, Osborne will announce plans for high speed rail across the Pennines, Crossrail from North to South London and for every school to become an academy.
The former is justified as getting ‘welfare spending under control’. The latter are cast as investment in the future. It reveals a great deal about Osborne’s attitudes that disabled people’s contribution to the future is not regarded as a worthwhile investment.
But here’s a thing: I think this could horribly backfire for him if campaigners and their allies play this well. While the government may in the end have pushed through reforms to ESA, it faced a huge battle. And a key reason for that was that it had a great deal in common with Osborne’s previous plan to scrap Working Tax Credit: it would punish ‘strivers’ for doing ‘the right thing’.
Personal Independence Payment and its predecessor Disability Living Allowance exists to help people overcome barriers so that they can participate in and contribute to society. In this sense one can align it to areas of government investment such as childcare for example, or working tax credits. It is investment with return. What Osborne is proposing therefore amounts not to a ‘spending cut’ but as massive disinvestment in the freedom and opportunities of disabled people and their families and in the contribution they would otherwise be supported to make to Britain.
Ministers argue that they are focusing resources on the ‘most severely disabled.’ This argument might hold water in relation to out of work benefits. But Personal Independence Payment forms part of the opportunity infrastructure that will prove necessary to halve the disability employment gap, like Access to Work support or Disabled Students Allowance. Removing this support from those deemed ‘less disabled’ will recreate barriers to employment for individuals and to the government in achieving its professed goal that PIP had previously helped overcome. In short, the reform will actually make more people ‘more disabled.’
The consequence will be huge costs and opportunity costs for future generations: because people won’t be able to go to work, will become unwell and draw more heavily on the NHS, and because they will have less money to spend in the economy. Which of course makes no sense at all.
As the crowd at the Paralympics so rightly proclaimed of Osborne: