By John Pring Disability News Service 16th Frebruary 2017
Campaigners have published a withering 237-page attack on the government’s work, health and disability green paper, accusing ministers of creating a “smokescreen” to disguise their intention to cut support and force sick and disabled people into inappropriate work.
The response from the Spartacus Network of disabled campaigners has been submitted to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as part of the public consultation on its Improving Lives green paper, which was published last October.
The authors say in the report that it was “truly shocking” that ministers had “touted” the green paper as “mitigation” for cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA) that are due to be introduced in April, when there was “very little evidence that the cuts would be mitigated at all”.
The report is in stark contrast to the generally positive responses to the government’s ideas from the big disability charities, with Scope even welcoming the green paper and praising it in a government press release for setting out “some bold ideas for reform”.
The Spartacus report, Smokescreen, says the green paper threatens to increase assessments and introduce stricter conditions for disabled people claiming ESA, the out-of-work sickness and disability benefit.
And it says the green paper promotes the idea of “work as a cure”, and suggests the government intends to “deny increasing numbers of sick people the financial support they need”.
It criticises the government’s plan to use “the same outsourced payment-by-results system as failed under the Work Programme and has been failing in Australia for nearly two decades”.
The Spartacus report says the green paper is both “suggestive, prejudicial and misleading” and “fatuous, disingenuous and a smokescreen for its real intentions”.
The green paper, the report says, is “designed to give the appearance of helping sick and disabled people whilst actually cutting and restricting access to their income, increasing conditionality, removing choice and imposing an ideological goal of being in paid work on every chronically sick or disabled person, regardless of the appropriateness of this goal for the individual”.
They add: “Healthy disabled people need social care packages, Access to Work packages, training and specialized job brokers.
“Those with long-term health conditions, whose condition is incompatible with work, should not be forced into further assessments and financial deprivation.”
Responding to the green paper’s threat that the government could for the first time introduce compulsory work-related activity for people in the ESA support group, it says: “What sick people in the support group need is the provision of decent healthcare, and an adequate, stable income that will give them the freedom to manage their health and wellbeing appropriately.
“People in the support group must never be mandated to employment support.”
The report is the latest in a series of research papers responding to government welfare reforms that have been produced by the Spartacus Network over the last five years.
The first of them, Responsible Reform, revealed in 2012 that the government had misled parliament and the public about the scale of opposition to its disability living allowance reforms, while last year’s Crippling Choices helped persuade the government to abandon plans to cut spending on personal independence payment (PIP).
Smokescreen, written by Caroline Richardson and Stef Benstead, with contributions from fellow campaigners David Gillon, Catherine Hale and Jonathan Hume, says the government “talks as though most people on ESA are latent labourers”, implies that sick and disabled people “do not need the support that in fact we do need”, and “marginalises us as unworthy unless we work”.
They say the green paper deliberately fails to address the workplace needs of healthy disabled people – such as many of those who are autistic or have learning difficulties or sensory impairments – because ministers know that employing such groups would probably require upfront and ongoing support costs.
Richardson and Benstead say in the report that a “central theme” of the green paper is the implication that “work is a cure for illness”, which they say is “fundamentally flawed and wrong”, and “a major reason why this entire Green Paper is so poor”.
The green paper says the government is trialling “partnerships between local health service commissioners and providers, Jobcentres, and councils”, which will “test if health-led support services are effective at supporting disabled people and people with health conditions into work”.
Richardson and Benstead say the focus on “transferring healthcare away from the NHS towards JobCentres is fundamentally wrong and irresponsible”.
They also say there is no evidence in the green paper that the government intends to address the barriers disabled people face by improving its Access to Work (AtW) scheme or providing more support to meet their extra costs through PIP.
Instead, they say, AtW is “notoriously slow and poor on delivery”, while PIP was “deliberately designed to remove considerable numbers of working-age sick and disabled people from the extra-cost benefit they need”.
Richardson, one of the report’s co-authors, told Disability News Service that the green paper appeared to have been deliberately written to obscure “what the government is really going to do, and regularly contradicts itself as a result”.
She said: “What was most shocking was the lengths the paper goes to introduce hypotheses which it then later states as facts in order to justify what it is proposing.
“It’s the most outrageous spin, using terms that suggest serious illness is minor and common, and hence easily and quickly cured.”
She said that one of the major risks if the green paper’s proposals were implemented was the “underestimation of the severity of the conditions in both groups of ESA.
“From the outset it portrays a huge subset of people as easily curable, and that charities and community groups have the capability and capacity to help people much quicker and cheaper than the NHS, and that work will be some form of rehabilitation.
“We have been here before with work programmes, and people have been very damaged as a result of overestimating claimants’ capability.
“It’s this determination to portray people as easily cured and supported, whilst social care and the NHS flounder due to underfunding, that is the most striking message.”
Benstead said she was “deeply saddened” by the green paper.
She said: “The government had an opportunity to do something positive.
“It had the opportunity to make sure that every person in this country has access to all the forms of support they need – whether financial, health, employment, social, personal, household or anything else.
“The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of personal responsibility.
“This paper removes the option of personal responsibility.
“People cannot take responsibility if the things they would choose – such as accessing healthcare, investing in themselves, freeing up their time for productive activities – are not available.”
Benstead said the green paper contained “many risks”.
She said: “It requires people to engage in much higher levels of activity that they have been assessed as capable of.
“It risks harming the patient/doctor relationship by all-but forcing every doctor to tell every (working-age) patient that they would be better if they were in work.
“It downgrades the severity of illness experienced by people on ESA, misleading the readers as to the depth and extent of support that is actually needed, and thus absolving itself of its responsibility to do far more.”