Quite a few media outlets (for example, here and here) are this morning reporting figures produced by the Department for Work and Pensions that show four out of ten applicants for Employment and Support Allowance failed to qualify for assistance and, hence, are ‘fit to work’. This is taken by Employment Minister Chris Grayling as further evidence of the need to reassess everyone on the old Incapacity Benefit because, by implication, there must be tens of thousands of people receiving IB when they shouldn’t be. They are, in fact, ‘fit to work’. Scroungers.
The BBC reports Mr Grayling as adding:
“We will, of course, carry on providing unconditional support to those who cannot work, but for those who can it’s right and proper that they start back on the road to employment.”
The reporting of this story has so far been largely uncritical. Yet, we should treat these arguments with caution, whichever political party is making them. While it is no doubt the case that there will be people applying for disability-related benefits whose circumstances are not such as to justify state assistance, to accept at face value that these numbers are indicative of widespread scrounging is implausible and unwise – although no doubt politically expedient for the Government. The statistics can be interpreted in other ways. How are we deciding who is ‘fit to work’ and who ‘cannot work’?
It may be that the criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to qualify for benefit are being redrawn more narrowly. People are being declared ‘fit to work’ when that conclusion is implausible.
Or it may be that the criteria are not the problem, but the way in which the tests are being administered is inflexible and unreasonable. People with significant disabilities are being declared fit to work because the tests are not sophisticated or sensitive enough to pick up the issues they are facing.
It would be surprising if it weren’t the case that some assessments arrive at unreasonable conclusions. It happened under the previous government, who were perhaps not quite so averse to “scrounging”. So it is even more likely to happen in the middle of a crackdown on the “undeserving” poor.
It can be argued that both the criteria being used and the way they are currently being applied are problematic. Anyone who cares to look can find many individual claimants and groups representing people with impairments who are very worried about the way the system is being administered. Not just worried, but able to provide examples of people being declared ‘fit to work’ – and hence having benefits reduced or removed – when, by any humane standard, that decision should be condemned as outrageous. Those with mental health issues have had particular cause for concern because the standardised and simplistic computer-based tests being applied have great difficulty in recognising the complexities of mental illness.
Sometimes these issues can appear a bit dry and abstract. For those without disabled family members or friends they do not really connect. And few people contemplate such issues with a view to whether and in what circumstances they might need state financial support at some point in the future. For anyone feeling they’d like to humanise the issue, I suggest reading the blog post Who is the most deserving? by Sue Marsh (no relation) to gain a better insight into what is at stake here.
Remind me again when it was that the Conservatives ceased to be the “nasty party”?
It may be that the majority feel that it is appropriate for the Government to withdraw benefits from, and impoverish, some of the most vulnerable members of society. Maybe this is now a harsher and less caring society. But let it be clear and transparent that this is what is happening. We really do need the media to do a better job of holding this Government to account, rather than swallowing the Government’s message whole.