There’s a wall in the Glasgow, where I live, which for about twenty years bore the legend “I’m Spartacus.” It seemed a fitting tribute to the spirit of a city which has a long tradition of solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable. Glasgow is also the city with the highest rate of chronic illness and disability in Britain (around 25% according to the last census). There are all sorts of theories about how this arose, but the result of it is a city that has adapted itself much better than many to the needs of its disabled population, both in practical terms and in social ones. Without the participation of such people, Glasgow’s economy simply could not function.
There’s a tendency, across Britain, to think of disabled people as economically inactive. In fact a survey by the Office of National Statistics shows that, in 2009, 50% were in some form of paid work (compared with 80% of the general population). Others make other forms of economic contribution, such as providing childcare for family members to enable them to work. But disabled people face particular barriers in making these contributions that are not there for other people, and these often lead to increased costs. For instance, a woman with severe mobility impairments may be unable to get to her place of work without taking a taxi, or a man with balance problems may need help managing stairs so he can get in and out of his home. Disabled people who work from home may have additional costs because they need extra space in order to do so. Some people need a carer alongside them all day to help with tasks like going to the toilet and to make sure they have medical support, yet are still able to make important contributions to the workplace.D
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is paid to people regardless of whether or not they are in work. Not every disabled person gets it and it is usual for a significant amount of medical evidence to be required before it is awarded. The vast majority of claimants are reassessed every three years to determine whether or not they still need it. Why not reassess everyone, as this government has proposed? Well, because some things just don’t get better. To put it bluntly, there is no point spending public money finding out whether or not a double amputee’s legs have grown back. Why not test more often? Well, it’s a balancing act. The rate of fraud is estimated by the government at 0.5%, so testing all the time would be unlikely to save money.
The idea behind DLA is that it helps disabled people to meet those extra costs involved in leading an active life. Imagine you are on the dole, receiving £65.45 per week in Jobseeker’s Allowance and £87.00 per week in Housing Benefit. You get a job, working 35 hours per week at minimum wage and bringing home a total of £212.80 (tax at this income level is negligible). This makes you £60.35 per week better off. Now imagine that you have to spend £15 per day (a conservative estimate) on taxis to get to and from work. You are already £14.65 worse off. Bear in mind that you probably have higher costs day to day just in order to afford the essentials – for instance, you may need to order food over the internet and pay for it to be delivered, or you may need to call a handyman when things break because even simple DIY is an impossibility. So this isn’t just about whether or not you have the money left to go out for a pint at the end of the week, or to buy a new computer game. It’s about whether or not you can put food on the table and heat your home. In such circumstances, you may have no choice but to give up your job.
This is the situation that many disabled people are likely to face if DLA is withdrawn. The replacement benefit, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) would exclude many people currently receiving DLA. For instance, care required in order to travel would no longer be taken into account, and people using manual wheelchairs which they could propel themselves (around 143,000 people of working age in the UK, most of whom need help sometimes) would be treated as if they were fully mobile, even though they might find many parts of the built environment completely inaccessible. PIP is a hastily drawn-up benefit that takes little account of the advice of those with direct understanding of the issues – disabled people themselves, their immediate carers and the charities that work with them.
This brings us to the Spartacus Report, a document compiled by disabled people with contributions from charities which aims to demonstrate the flaws in the proposed system. Having been assembled with limited access to relevant academic expertise (its leading researcher is a mathematician, not a sociologist) and with a tiny budget, it’s not watertight, but it does make a strong case. In particular, it highlights the lack of research with affected groups in the government’s consultation on PIP and the severe difficulties that the changes are likely to cause for some individuals. Even if we can have only limited confidence in the sampling process, this assessment of difficulties should be cause for concern, because every disabled person who falls through the net is one more person likely to become economically inactive and vulnerable to severe hardship. If, as is often argued, a government’s first duty is to protect its citizens, then it is failing to do its job properly even if the number of people thus affected is tiny.
Let’s look at one of the groups we know will be affected – that subset of wheelchair users. It’s difficult to find accurate statistics on the number of wheelchair users in employment but research by the University of Leeds suggests it is around 25%. Of the 143,000 who are likely to lose their financial support under the PIP system, it is likely that the percentage is higher (because those with the most serious problems are likely to be in the group recognised as unable to propel themselves), but even if we use the 25% figure, that gives us 35,750 people at risk of being forced out of their jobs. The percentage able to pay for extra costs without support will be small; consider that average earnings for disabled people are already significantly lower than for others and 23% (as opposed to 9% of the general population) have no formal qualifications.
What does it mean for society at large when a disabled person is unable to work? It means the loss of their National Insurance contributions, for a start. For those working full time and earning more than minimum wage, it means the loss of tax revenue. And it means that they will need to be supported by the state. Jobseeker’s Allowance alone, for someone over 25, costs £15.60 more per week than the mobility component of DLA, and then there’s Housing Benefit to consider, plus the fact that unemployment entitles people to things like free dental care at additional cost to the state.
In case anybody thinks that there will be enough higher earning disabled people remaining in work despite changes to cover the cost of lower earning ones being pushed out of work, consider what that means in the long term. Very few of us go straight into high paying jobs at the start of our careers, even if we have the strong academic qualifications that disabled people find it harder to obtain. If we squeeze people out of the jobs market at the bottom end, they’ll never be able to climb toward the top end. They’ll be unemployed not only now, but on an ongoing basis. The financial loss this represents to the taxpayer, over a lifetime, is substantial.
Of course, the loss we face as a society if disabled people cannot work cannot be calculated on the basis of lost revenue and increased expenditure alone. There is also the loss of the unique skills and abilities each individual represents. In some cases, key personnel will be lost to small businesses and to companies for which strong teamwork is essential. And there is the significant personal suffering involved, which should matter not simply because of the increased pressure on the NHS that each instance of long term unemployment statistically represents (principally due to depression and stress-related illness) but also because, well, a healthy society just doesn’t do that to people.
With all this in mind, can we expect a rethink of the Welfare Reform Bill? Maybe, maybe not. But if we don’t get one, we must question the credibility of a government that ignores the weight of evidence in making its choices; and we must inevitably wonder if David Cameron will find himself looking at a slave revolt.