The impact of welfare reform – time for action

This Thursday, 27 February, MPs will debate a Commons motion requiring an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, and an immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.  It is the result of an e-petition signed by 104,000 people, supported and driven by War on Welfare (WOW), who with many others have carried the fight against  a bipartisan political assault on people with long-term conditions and severe disabilities which has been building up for nearly twenty years. Read a briefing for the debate here.

If you can, watch the debate (from around 11.15a.m.) through the link here. Those on twitter will be using the hash-tag  #WowDebate2014.

Afterwards, you can read the Hansard report here ; and use it politically. Parliament has an honourable history as a safety valve to express the real despair, and empathy, of many, mainly Labour MPs, in response to welfare reform: Labour made it the subject of an Opposition Day debate last July. But as a vehicle of democratic oversight of welfare reform, parliament’s record has been grim and toothless.

This month, with the revolt of the clerics over welfare reform, there has been a marked shift, with a new and immediate moral challenge concerning hunger and food banks which exposes an urgent need for politicians to start thinking through to a way forward, acknowledging a painful and shaming history. As I write, a leaked DWP memo has been published which puts a stop to all repeat medical assessments, which up to now have been a means of harrassing those who have won their reviews or appeals against their Work Capability Assessment. It’s like someone is opening windows.

Few now remember that this began under the John Major government. All those years ago, as Incapacity Benefit itself was rolled out, between April 1995 and October 1996 60% of disallowances were appealed; more than half were reinstated.   Familiar?  In my 1998 profile of poverty and health in Manchester, the Patient Affairs Officer at Manchester Royal Infirmary describes the system as having become ‘in many ways very punitive’. In 1999, Tony Blair opined that Incapacity Benefit is ‘not a benefit which compensates those who have had to give up work because of long-term illness or sickness – it’s an alternative to long-term unemployment or early retirement. That’s why it must be reformed’.   His aides will have drawn on Sheffield Hallam’s ‘Incapacity Benefit and Unemployment ‘ (1999), now mysteriously hard to come by, which identified  a ‘million hidden unemployed’ supposedly wasting away on incapacity benefit by assuming that the ‘real’ level of claims should be that of the region with the lowest level, i.e. the south-east – ignoring the minor detail of geographical health inequality; and finding that for three-quarters of people receiving incapacity benefit  ‘the issue is about what type of work or how much of it they are able to do’, when a more balanced interpretation of the same data would have been that overall, 76% were either unable to do any work or their health limited what they could do ‘a lot’, with another 18% saying their health limits what they can do ‘quite a lot’. That’s the history on which this era is built.

Fast forward to the ‘mature’ Labour government. In late 2006, David Freud, an investment banker and dealbroker,  was appointed by Tony Blair to provide an  independent review of ‘welfare’.   Freud acknowledged that he “didn’t know anything about welfare at all”.  After three weeks he concluded: ‘Based on the analysis in this report, I have no doubt that this will be an annual multi-billion pound market”.

Fast forward again to 2014, and we find 22,840 sanctions imposed on claimants of ESA in the work-related activity group in a year – but the Welfare Reform Act 2007 says that you get ESA if it is not reasonable to require you to work – and ‘work-related activity’ is not defined separately from work – so how come the sanctions? It’s easy if there’s no democratic scrutiny because too many of your representatives’ minds have been ‘bipartisan’.

Now the reality has been forced into conformity with the flawed methodology (A million found fit for work) – hotly pursued by the number wrongly found fit for work – and some people are shocked by the consequences, if they believe them. And Labour are right to be frightened, but this won’t go away. It’s a war against precisely the people on whom 70% of NHS resources are spent (pp8-15 of link).

There is no space here to elaborate on the human cost of welfare reform – many MPs have spoken eloquently from the evidence of their constituents – or on the fallacies that have been allowed to fester in the public mind. But a debate that is an opportunity for more hand-wringing is not good enough. Labour needs to get its head round the seriousness of the moral and political sinkhole we find ourselves in.  Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has spoken about ‘the  deep–rooted aspiration to “earn and belong” that Jon Cruddas has put at the heart of our policy review’. Can we imagine for a moment how that phrase will go down with someone who is too ill or disabled to work? As Cardinal Nichols says, the ‘basic safety net’ has gone. Jon Cruddas recently said, ‘After an historical struggle we built our welfare state’. Well, now we’ve got to rebuild it.

This was first published by Compass,