Why benefit cuts for disabled people will only damage the UK economy
As the UK government announces changes to disability benefits, Sharon Brennan argues that supposed savings may actually have a negative impact on the wider economy
When I was dying I applied to the UK Department of Work and Pensions for an enhanced rate of Disabled Living Allowance (DLA), the benefit that helps towards the extra cost of disability, and received the help I needed.
It allowed me to get cabs to hospital when I couldn’t walk, not worry about heating my house when being cold could prove deadly and helped me buy the extra food I needed to prevent malnourishment. I was lucky - not only did I eventually receive the double-lung transplant that saved my life, but I received the benefits I needed while at my most ill.
In short, the government isn't denying there’s wide-reaching need but insisting the benefit is only sustainable if it restricts help to just the most seriously disabled. If you listen out for it, you’ll recognise this mantra repeated across numerous statements from ministers around a whole host of disability cuts.
Over 12 government social security cuts have been agreed that will affect disabled people and it's clear that, as with PIP, many of these changes are driven by the desire to save money in an unforgiving economic climate. So it seems deficit reduction comes first, the needs of some of the most vulnerable in society second.
“When I was desperately ill, I never came to terms with not being able to work. To me, having a job is vital for a sense of identity, independence and self-worth, not to mention offering companionship and contact with society. Yet if you’re disabled you’re four times more likely to be out of work than if you’re not.
But even if one ignores the personal pain these cuts are causing disabled people, it remains a policy intention that’s proving hard to justify on a purely economic basis.
In the last update to the DWP’s Fulfilling Potential strategy, aimed at improving the lives of disabled people, the then minister for disability, Mark Harper MP, said he wanted to make, “our communities, workplaces and society in general fully accessible for and inclusive of disabled people.”
He went on: “Removing barriers is not just good for disabled people but for all of us. As disabled people's talents and skills are integrated into the economy to help maintain and drive strong and sustainable economic growth, their spending power is realised by our businesses.”
In August 2012, the previous coalition government launched a guide for small businesses to help them take advantage of what was estimated to be £80bn of spending power that disabled people may hold. The cuts now facing disabled people have the potential to devastate what the government itself refers to as the ‘purple pound’ by almost a third.
Yet the removal of money from people’s pockets is not the only way that the UK economy might be negatively affected by cuts to the support offered to people with long-term illnesses or disabilities. A recent report from Scope found that the economy would be boosted by £45bn if a million more disabled people were given real, tangible support into work. Yet much of the support that’s offered them in order to find work is either being cut back or is failing.
In a major government survey in 2010, 50% of unemployed adults with disabilities seeking work were limited in the type or amount or work they could do, citing inaccessible transport and a lack of manageable job opportunities that offered flexible or reduced hours as just some of the problems they faced. Other research by Scope shows that a staggering 74% of disabled adults feel they’ve lost out on a job opportunity because of their impairment or health.
In a survey by the Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Trust, the charity that supports people with the condition I have, one-third of people with CF who are in employment or training believe they’d no longer be able to get to work if they were deemed ineligible for PIP higher rate mobility. That’s just one example.
“Disabled people are pushing hard to get into work and achieve their career goals. But in 2015, too many disabled people remain locked out of the workplace.
By the government prioritising those in “greatest need” it’s losing sight of the fact that many of these benefits offered to people who have serious health conditions (but perhaps aren’t yet at their most ill) enable people to contribute to the wider economy by working part-time or volunteering in their local community.
Just as worrying, the government’s flagship Work Programme, expected to cost £2.8bn by 2020, has proved a disappointment, with government contractors planning on spending less than half on supporting people with long-term health conditions back into work than promised when they first bid for the work. Unsurprisingly therefore, just 11% of those in the 'harder to help' bracket are likely to find a job through the scheme, compared with 27% of those who aren’t disabled and aged over 25.
Even by only focusing on these examples, it becomes unsurprising that in the same Scope research mentioned earlier, the chief executive of the charity, Richard Hawkes, said: “Disabled people are pushing hard to get into work and achieve their career goals. But too many disabled people remain locked out of the workplace.”
Then there’s the cost to society that comes from removing financial support. As well as potential lost tax receipts and reduced consumer spending by disabled people, leaving people in increased social isolation will also increase the cost to the NHS. More research needs to be done into this area but just treating the physical impact loneliness has been shown to cause, as well as likely increased emergency admissions due to reduced social care support, will see costs mount up.
The government should lift its head up from counting the money it believes its welfare cuts have saved and look again at the wider financial and social costs of its incoherent and short-sighted policies. By looking at the job opportunities, spending ability and independence lost by disabled people, it may well see that supposed pot of cash shrink before its eyes.