After a rare bone disease nearly killed him, Mark Sparrow had to stop working and now fears the ESA and DLA cuts.
From April this year, many disabled people will be facing a total loss of their sickness benefits. Employment support allowance (ESA) is paid to those who are sick or disabled. The benefit is paid in two forms; one is means-tested and the other is not. If you have paid sufficient National Insurance contributions you are entitled to what is known as contributory ESA. Regardless of the savings you have or your family income, you are entitled to receive up to £94 a week until you are well enough to return to work. To qualify you must have been ill for at least 13 weeks and must attend a stringent work capability assessment.
At the moment around 75% of people lodging a claim for ESA fail to receive the allowance; this tends to be either because they aren’t poorly enough, or because they have got better before the eligibility period has elapsed. From this statistic we can see that the people who end up receiving ESA are genuinely sick and disabled.
That was certainly true for me three years ago after I almost died, after contracting a rare bone disease. Over the following three years I spent six months in various hospitals and had a string of extremely painful operations. My mobility is now severely restricted and the septicaemia I suffered has impaired some of my mental and motor functions. Returning to work (as a journalist) won’t be easy, certainly not in the current job market, and the work I’ll eventually be able to manage will be extremely limited.
However, because I’ve paid National Insurance contributions all my life, the ESA benefit was there for me. The £89 a week I receive isn’t a big sum in most people’s eyes but it makes a huge difference for me. Among other everyday essentials it pays for the heating to keep me warm during the long and often painful days at home while my partner is out at work.
Apart from ESA and some disability living allowance (DLA), I am totally dependent on my partner’s very modest earnings. It’s not an easy life but with careful budgeting we just about manage. Of course it would be easier if my partner could have my unused personal tax allowance, but the tax system treats people as individuals while the benefits system insists on treating them as if they are financially glued to their partner.
In April, when the welfare reform bill becomes law, thousands like me – including cancer sufferers, people with psychiatric problems and those with multiple sclerosis – will have their benefits summarily stripped from them. Those who have already received 12 months or more of ESA payments will see those payments cease immediately. This move is unusual as it’s retrospective. The government says claimants will be eligible to apply for income-related ESA and other means-tested benefits, but if the claimant’s partner earns as little as £149 a week, or if they have modest savings, the chances are they won’t be eligible to receive a penny.
Disabled people represent a relatively small part of the population and many don’t get out to vote. It’s easier to pick on a marginalised group in order to find savings instead of squaring up to a more vocal and better-organised section of society – many disabled people are simply too busy coping with pain and sickness to be able to fight their own corner.
The government knows ESA claimants, even if they were capable of doing some limited work, stand little or no chance of finding a job in the current climate. It also knows that disabled people’s partners and families will not stand by and see their loved ones suffer or go without the care and support they need.
It’s a breathtakingly cynical move and quite heartless, especially when the potential sums saved by making the move retrospective will yield around £410m – a sum that pales into insignificance when compared with the cost of the axed NHS computer system or the Olympics.
The government is also planning to hack back DLA, a payment that makes life slightly more bearable for many severely disabled people. It’s another cost-cutting measure that will choke off the last bit of support that many thousands like me can hope to receive from the state.
At the age of 50, and with very limited job prospects because of my mobility problems and chronic pain, I have only the mercy of family and loved ones to count on.
The satisfaction of being able to contribute to the family budget with a benefit that has been earned and paid for will be removed. The last shred of dignity will be stripped from people who have already lost a great deal in life and who may already feel a burden on those who care for them.