The new mantra of ‘something for something’ may disadvantage disabled people, says Alice Maynard, if that something means work that they can not find
The House of Lords is debating the welfare reform bill. Few people would argue that the welfare system doesn’t need reforming, but the plan to get more people working will backfire when it comes to disabled people.
The bill includes a number of proposals that chip away at the support disabled people and their families need to play a part in society.
These include a time limit for out-of-work support for disabled people who have previously been employed, changes to disability living allowance – a lifeline for many people – and a drop in the support for parents with a disabled child as part of the new universal credit.
But my worry is that any concerns are being drowned out by a new mantra: “something for something”.
The message that your right to welfare should depend on your contribution to society was a thread running through speeches at Labour conference by Ed Miliband, Liam Byrne, Tessa Jowell and others.
“We have to be the party that puts back together the something-for-something bargain that was the genesis of the way we came together to create a country free from fear”, said Byrne.
In Manchester, David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Maria Miller echoed Labour’s new refrain.
“Under Labour they got something for nothing. With us they’ll only get something if they give something,” declared Cameron.
“Something for something”: it sounds so straightforward.
Little wonder the two parties have adopted it as their narrative for welfare.
But for disabled people it begs some difficult questions, not least “what do we have to put in to get something back?”
The prime minister’s speech gave us some clues. Cameron talked about “unleashing your leadership” and “community spirit”. Disabled people would back such a broad definition of contribution.
Many disabled people do contribute in this way. We volunteer; we are part of families, communities and organisations. We sit on charity boards; care for relatives; participate in our community and get involved in local issues.
However, it costs more to be disabled – getting involved in your community, visiting family, finding work all spell extra costs if you’re disabled. For instance, getting a cab where there’s no accessible transport. That’s why payments such as disability living allowance exist.
The welfare reform bill is proposing to squeeze this support – removing the very thing that allows a disabled person to do “something”. Without support to overcome the extra costs of being disabled, disabled people will struggle to keep their side of this social bargain.
But intriguingly, the likes of Liam Byrne and Iain Duncan Smith – the Labour and Conservative leads on welfare – don’t take quite as progressive a view on the “something we have to put in”. They both define it strictly as work.
And it is here that things get even tougher for disabled people.
Approximately one in two disabled people work. But that figure masks the fact that most want to work. However, the reality is that the flexible, accessible jobs don’t exist and where they do, disabled people are less likely to have the skills, experience and confidence they need to get them.
What happens to people who can’t find work in this world of “something for something”?
Reading between the lines of the rhetoric, one of two things happens.
They are either written off as workshy, and face losing state support. Or we decide that they are not able to work and they just get the basic support they need. The message is that they have no value in this new society.
This leads us inevitably to the most important question when it comes to welfare and disabled people: would we still invest in support for people to live independent lives if they’re not likely to get a job?
If contribution is a pre-condition for support, then that leaves the disabled people who need the support in the first place in a catch-22.
Scope is fighting to ensure that the future of welfare includes a system that gives disabled people the same opportunities as everyone else. Judging by this emerging narrative, that fight has just got even harder.
• Alice Maynard is the chair of disability charity Scope