Poor and sick paying the heaviest price for Osborne’s deficit reduction

If you are poor and sick and have paid your National Insurance contributions you will be leading the battle to reduce the deficit, writes Steve Griffiths.

By Steve Griffiths

Over a 15-year process of welfare ‘reform’, successive governments have tightened a flawed assessment of fitness for work which has resulted, at a conservative estimate, in half a million people who are sick or disabled and unable to work being wrongly disallowed benefit.

But here’s a wheeze. If you cut the period Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) can be paid as a contributory (National Insurance) benefit, at a stroke you can remove it from large numbers of people who thought they had paid into a contributory scheme, without all the bother of paying a multinational even more taxpayers’ money to ‘assess’ sick people off benefits.

From next year, the government intends to restrict national insurance-based ESA to one year. Among other things, this will mean 280,000 people who received the benefit because they are not fit for work will lose £4,500 a year without first being found fit for work

However, the coalition’s sense of impunity in the embrace of a supportive media makes it careless: an Impact Assessment of the proposal by the DWP is shot through with error and misrepresentation.

It claims:

“It was never intended that ESA for those in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) should be paid for an unlimited period to people who, by definition, are expected to move towards the workplace with help and support.”

This is simply wrong on a number of levels. Labour’s 2007 Welfare Reform Act opens with a clear statement that if your health is such that you are awarded ESA, it is “not reasonable to require (you) to work” – whatever group you are put in.

In other words, there is no basis for claiming people should cease to receive a benefit when they still meet the criteria for it – or to justify the claim by referring to a political intention or expectation which is in conflict with key wording in the primary legislation.

The assessment claims:

“…there may also be some positive health benefits as a result of customers going into work.”

Indeed, to the question of whether the cut will have an impact on ‘health and wellbeing’, its brief answer is ‘no’. This is blatantly untrue.

The Impact Assessment is built on denial, or ignorance, of compelling evidence that:

• Increasingly common working conditions entailing insecurity and stress have a massive impact on health;

• Low income is associated with sickness and early death, as are high and increasing levels of inequality – and 280,000 people will lose all benefit while still meeting the health-related criteria for it: around £4,600 a year each.

Another 220,000 will lose £1,100 a year;

• The new benefits regime is having a massive impact on the mental health of many vulnerable people;

• People getting incapacity benefits are not ‘hidden unemployed’ – for example, the level of emergency admissions to hospitals is much higher where incapacity benefits are high; and

• Above all, the idea there are a million people getting sickness benefits who should not be depends on an assumption that there is no geographical health inequality.

This is a redistribution of income from people who are unable to work due to illness or disability in order to meet the deficit. It will also be a redistribution of DWP spending to the NHS.

• For more detail and links see www.informedcompassion.com.

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