The choice ahead on protecting and promoting investment in disabled people’s lives

For those affected by cuts to benefits, the effect is far less money to live on and to pay for the things that allow one to live a life.   It doesn’t really matter where the money came from or why.

It is perfectly understandable that those opposing cuts to disability related benefits draw few distinctions in their advocacy between cuts to out of work disability benefits, cost of living benefits, support for housing costs and payments in lieu of services such as the Independent Living Fund when calling for a ‘cumulative impact assessment.’ Austerity is a political choice from which these various cuts derive.  It has closed in on a great many disabled people’s lives from all sides.  It has often not felt as though government draws any distinctions either.  As a result, many battles have become one almighty war.

In recent weeks we have though witnessed a deeply contrasted debate over the future of Employment and Support Allowance on the one hand and Personal Independence Payment on the other. MP’s fully supportive of the former now express deep concerns about the latter.  Is this just politics, or does it run deeper?

Both ESA (and its predecessor Incapacity Benefit) and Personal Independence Payment (and its predecessor Disability Living Allowance) are rooted in the principle of social security: ensuring that everyone has an income sufficient to enjoy an adequate standard of living.   Both are paid for via general taxation and exist as a form of social insurance.

However, that’s where their similarities depart.  IB/ESA is paid to people not currently in paid employment who are assessed either as unable to work or as unable to work now but who may be in future.  It is built on a recognition of the disability related ‘income penalty’ experienced by people who face significant impairment or health related barriers in earning an adequate income through paid work.   DLA/PIP is paid to people whether or not they are in paid employment, is not means tested and is built on the recognition of the disability -related ‘extra cost of living penalty’ encountered by some people with an impairment or health condition.

Both are critical to addressing poverty and its consequences, yet where IB/ESA recognises the cost of not being able to participate, DLA/PIP is designed to address the costs incurred by disabled people of striving to participate on an equal basis with others.

As I say at the beginning of this post, this distinction means little once we come down to how much is in people’s pockets.   £30 less a week for people in the Work Related Activity Group is £30 less a week with which to spend on participation. Despite assurances apparently given to or by Tory MPs, PIP will not make up the difference for a whole host of reasons.  People who the government deems not currently able to achieve a living income through paid employment will be poorer and less able to participate because of the cut to WRAG.

However, realities aside, the political legitimacy of these two benefits rests upon the distinction above.  PIP is regarded as an ‘active’ benefit, whereas ESA is seen as inactive ‘welfare’.  Take away PIP and people become inactive. We saw a similar argument over Osborne’s previous plans to cut Working Tax Credits: because they were seen to punish ‘strivers.’   This might help explain why the same MP’s that voted for a cut in the WRAG could less than fortnight later be so opposed to the prospect of further cuts to PIP.    Of course one could mount an argument that the cut on WRAG also punishes strivers, but we seem unable to get past the orthodoxy that ‘extra’ out of work benefits act as a work disincentive.

This situation presents campaigners with a dilemma: is it best to seek to restore the good name of ‘social security’ in the round, or to accept, harness and build on these distinctions?

On balance – and mindful of trends in public attitudes, the fiscal pressures that will be felt by governments of all political persuasions over the coming decades, coupled with the need to get back on track progress towards equality and independent living – I think the more fruitful long term strategy is the latter approach.

On the one hand we have to ensure that people who cannot work for reasons related to an impairment or health condition are socially protected. Defending the principle of adequate social insurance against work limiting illness, injury or impairment must remain high on the agenda. But at the same time I believe it is in the interests of disability rights to position as ‘active’ as much public investment in financial and practical support for disabled people as possible.

The lesson of the past few weeks is arguably that by drawing out the distinctive histories, purposes and functions of the various systems of disability-focused financial and practical support we stand a chance of fracturing and diminishing public and political support for cuts and making a fresh case for investment in disabled people’s lives.










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