Today Parliament debates the government’s plan to cut benefit payments from £5000 to £3500 per year for those it assesses as presently unable to work. Meanwhile, the Green Paper on Work, Health and Disability ventures a system of discretionary conditionality regarding those assessed as entirely unable to work. The government, it says, wants in pursuing these reforms to ‘improve lives.’
In thinking about this I was reminded of the approach we took at the Disability Rights Commission with respect to our work to influence the then Labour government’s welfare reform policies (work led by Marilyn Howard in my policy team). It’s so easy to get lost in the complexity of welfare reform as not to take a step back and ask simply ‘why’? For the DRC, the answer was clear – welfare reform could only have purpose and validity if it advanced equal citizenship. Thinking about citizenship allowed us to think beyond only ‘rights’ and to consider the importance of disabled people accruing corresponding responsibilities. How could disabled people enjoy the rights and practice the responsibilities that equal citizenship implied? One such responsibility was the responsibility to earn a living through paid work if one was able. But clearly many disabled people did and do face significant barriers that would need to be overcome – as a matter of rights – before it would be just for the State and wider society to impose equal responsibilities. Hence various tests needed to be met before the State could seek to leverage unfair or unreasonable expectations, impose conditionality and sanctions attached to benefit entitlement or change the levels of out of work benefit payment recognising long term disadvantage, as was the case with Incapacity Benefit and its successor ESA.
So we came up with a framework, which we called ‘conditions for conditionality.’ It included four principles:
- Reforms should ensure human rights and equality of opportunity are promoted;
- A more flexible system that supports participation (the fact that a person is unable to assume paid employment should not prevent them engaging in public life);
- A fair balance between individual and employer responsibility;
- and that disabled people have access to the support they need in order to take up their responsibilities.
It was our position that these tests needed to be met before government could equalise the obligations or rates of benefit payment of those on Incapacity Benefit and those on Job Seekers Allowance. This submission to the Work and Pensions Committee from 2006 gives you a flavour or how these principles shaped the DRC’s policy response.
It’s painfully obvious that these conditions have not been met and yet have served as no impediment to the government extending – and planning to continue to extend – equality of obligation to disabled people and people with long term health conditions. I share this only because it offers a way to think and talk about the inherent unfairness – and ineffectiveness – of the government’s policy and proposals, without resorting to ideas and language around ‘cruelness’ and ‘vulnerability’ which simply add to the damage already being done to disabled people’s status in society. At the same time, it offers a framework through which disabled people and their allies, including sensible employers, public services and providers of support can go about charting a principled and effective alternative.