As Labour and Conservative welfare leads spell out a vision for the benefits system, Richard Hawkes asks, what’s happened to the debate on disability?
It’s a big week for welfare.
Labour and Conservative leads are spelling out their visions for the welfare state, vying to be seen as ‘tough but fair’.
On Monday Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves told the Institute for Public Policy Research they would force jobseeker’s allowance claimants with inadequate maths or English to go on basic skills courses as a condition of receiving their benefit. Labour estimates this will affect about 300,000 people.
Iain Duncan Smith is making a key-note speech on Thursday. We don’t know the detail yet. But on Monday he and Theresa May placed a joint article in the Mail promising a “Housing benefit ban on jobless migrants”.
But as the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan says, “The changes each side is proposing amount to fiddling at the margins.”
Meanwhile there is a big, unavoidable question about disabled people’s living standards that politicians have to answer over the next 18 months.
How do we make sure that as the economy picks up we don’t leave disabled people behind?
With disabled people struggling to make ends meet and getting in debt, struggling to live independently and struggling to find and keep work it’s an urgent issue.
We know politicians are working behind the scenes on this.
Unfortunately the current political debate makes it almost impossible to focus on the real issues.
The disability debate is stuck in stereotypes: ‘hopeless disabled person in need of hand-outs’ or ‘skiving scrounger fiddling the system’.
So here are three ways we can re-start the disability welfare debate:
- Let’s start by seeing disabled people as individuals – not a big group of people all with identical barriers and in need of the same support. Then let’s get over the fact that some disabled people need benefits, and instead take a look at why disabled people need support. Most disabled people are facing a living standards crisis – but sitting behind this are a range of concerns – from public attitudes, to local support to live independently and simply making ends meet.
- How we can drive down the costs of living with a disability? The issue of extra costs has been totally ignored so far. Disabled people aspire to live an ordinary life – no more, no less. Being disabled brings with it huge extra costs, research shows it can average between £800 – £1,550 per month. This includes things like specialist food, specialist equipment, specialist clothing, accessible travel costs. While these costs exist Disability Living Allowance – introduced by the Conservatives in 1992 – is vital and must be protected. It creates a level playing field and enables people to live and work. Before we get stuck in discussions about eligibility and assessments, let’s remember why this support exists in the first place.
- How can we change employers’ attitudes? There is rightly a lot of discussion about Employment Support Allowance and the Work Capability Assessment. But the focus should be on getting people back to work. Disabled people are pushing hard to get jobs and get on in the workplace. Nine in ten disabled people work or have worked. Yet only about 50% of disabled people have a job right now. A million more disabled people could be in work. How can we make sure disabled people get the tailored, specialist support they need and how improve the work place to so that disabled people thrive?
We know all parties want to engage positively with the 10 million disabled people in the UK. We know there’s a lot of positive discussion going on. But, when it comes to welfare, now’s the time to start to address the big issues.