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What you need to know about the Welfare Reform Proposals

Updated: Jun 3


Image described in caption.
Overlaying a navy blue background specked with lighter dashes, within a dark blue square frame, a pale pink square sit centrally. In the square are the bold blue words 'Welfare Reform Proposals - What you need to know'. Equal Lives' logo is in the bottom right.

With the recent government announcement of proposed welfare reforms against a familiar backdrop of media hostility, it’s been a challenging few weeks for Disabled people in the UK.


For months now, journalists have been sharing an increasing number of opinion pieces referring to an ‘army of shirkers’ who are ‘languishing on sickness benefits’. The Jeremy Vine Show posted a now-deleted tweet asking, ‘Is it time to crack down on jobless benefits?’. Mel Stride, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying there is a danger mental health culture ‘has gone too far’. The Telegraph even shared a calculator which allows readers to work out exactly how much of their salary goes towards ‘Britain’s growing welfare state’.


On the 19th of April, Rishi Sunak delivered a speech on proposed welfare reforms. It was a hotchpotch of distinct topics from ‘fit notes’, to prevalence of mental illness, a faster rollout of Universal Credit replacing legacy benefits with work requirements being increased, and the already controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) being made harder, as well as changes to the way Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is delivered and assessed, making it more difficult for people to qualify.


Since the announcement, Equal Lives have been advised that local mental health services have experienced an increase in calls from Disabled people worried about these proposals, and we know this distress is reflective of the feeling among our members and the wider UK disability community.


The aim of this blog is to explain, with the help of an expert, what you can expect the political process to look like (fortunately, it’s less worrying than you might expect!). In addition, we will explore whether the claims laid out in these proposals are accurate and what you can do to share your opinions with the government.

 

Fit Notes


In his speech, Sunak called for an end to ‘sick note culture’. ‘Fit notes’ are currently issued by doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists, and physiotherapists when a patient is deemed to be too unwell to work beyond a period of seven days.


The government announced that they plan to test the removal of responsibility from GPs for providing fit notes, as they believe this places an unfair time-burden on them and are concerned GPs may not be able to remain objective when assessing their patients’ fitness to work. They also stated the fit note process acts as a ‘gateway towards some ill health and disability benefit assessments’.


Interestingly, NHS data shows that the number of fit notes issued in England – 11 million last year – has not risen since before the pandemic. 


The Fit Note Call for Evidence closes Monday 8 July.


Same motif as first graphic, with the words reiterating 'NHS data shows that the number of fit notes issued in England – 11 million last year – has not risen since before the pandemic.'.

‘Modernising Support for Independent Living: the Health and Disability Green Paper’


Let’s consider the facts; it’s true that there are 2.8 million people in the UK who are ‘economically inactive’ due to long-term sickness. It’s also true that this is a near-record high, with over half of said people reporting experience of depression and anxiety.


It shouldn’t be considered surprising that more of the workforce have become unable to work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and Cost of Living Crisis. A vast body of evidence shows that poverty is linked to ill health. When one in five people in the UK are living in poverty, it is unsurprising that the population is getting sicker.


Since the start of the pandemic, many people across the world developed new mental illnesses or became more mentally unwell through the associated stress, isolation, fear, trauma, grief of losing loved ones, businesses, and their standard of living. Mental illness is a valid form of disability and its economic impact will not be reduced while the health services people need aren’t accessible.


Same motif as first graphic, with the words reiterating 'Mental illness is a valid form of disability and its economic impact will not be reduced while the health services people need aren’t accessible'.'.

The latest ONS figures put cases of Long COVID at 2 million across England and Scotland, with 381,000 (19.2% of those with self-reported long COVID) reporting that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been ‘limited a lot’. Those living with post viral illness of all forms already face significant barriers to participation in society, as well as often having their reality doubted and minimised. Adding extra barriers will not support anyone in rejoining the work force.

 

One aspect of the PIP reform proposal is the suggestion that PIP payments would be replaced with vouchers or a catalogue. This feels like the same, tired trope that people on benefits cannot be trusted to make their own financial decisions. There is a fundamental misconception among many non-disabled people about what Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is and why it exists.


PIP is not an ‘out of work’ sickness benefit, and many PIP claimants are already in work. PIP is designed to mitigate the often exorbitant additional cost of being disabled, which can be eye-wateringly expensive! PIP allows many Disabled people to participate in the world of work in a sustained way that is neccesary for their needs. Making PIP harder to access may, in fact, stop Disabled people from working.


The types of extra costs Disabled people face include (and are not limited to) soaring care charges, mobility aids, unavoidable delivery costs, daily living aids, home and car adaptations, specialist dietary products, continence products, additional medical costs (such as supplements, medications, and therapies not offered or accessible through the NHS), and higher energy costs. In addition, there is the extra cost of access that non-disabled people experience, as standard.


Same motif as first graphic, reiterating the list of additional costs Disabled people face.

Statistics demonstrate that Disabled people already face disproportionately higher rates of poverty, with multi-marginalised people being hit even harder. It’s hard to imagine these proposed changes to PIP delivery wouldn’t vastly underestimate the complex and eclectic ways different Disabled people need to spend their money on disability-related costs.


If getting Disabled people who are potentially able to work into sustained employment is the aim, it is illogical not to prioritise the systemic barriers that prevent this, such as NHS waiting lists, poverty, and the backlogs and other issues within the ‘highly bureaucratic’ Access to Work scheme, a government programme with the aim of supporting disabled people to take up or stay in work.


The government have not yet provided any figures that show how these proposed changes would affect the number of PIP claimants or by how much they are aiming to cut the welfare budget. For user-led disability rights organisations like us, who see the real-world impact of the existing benefit system every day, it is hard to believe these reforms would be implemented in a way that doesn’t make Disabled people’s lives harder.


The way Disabled people continue to be let down by the systems designed to support us is an internationally recognised human rights violation. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities produced a 2016 report which accused the UK government of ‘grave and systemic violations’ that had occurred as a result of welfare reforms since 2010.

The week after Sunak’s welfare reform speech, and seven years on from the original UN Committee report, the Committee produced a follow-up report that outlined the ways in which the UK Government have ‘failed to eliminate the root causes of inequality and discrimination’, and expressed they had even found ‘signs of regression’.


Especially pertinent to the PIP reform proposal, the UN Committee’s report stated, ‘There is a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity. Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and wilfully avoiding employment (‘skiving off’) and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.’

Same motif as the first graphic, with the UN Commitee's quote on welfare reforms in bold blue text

Now, for the nitty gritty explanation of what the political process will look like, we are delighted to introduce Stuart Iain…

 

The Political Process


First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Stuart; I am a 33-year-old wheelchair user with Cerebral Palsy. I have been kindly allowed to contribute to this blog regarding the recent Green Paper published by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). I hold a degree in International Relations and Modern History and am very familiar with political processes, political climates, and the like.


A Green Paper, such as the one being discussed in this blog, catchily titled ‘Modernising Support for Independent Living: the Health and Disability Green Paper’ is, in terms of the political process, an expression of an idea put to paper. Green Papers discuss concepts and are open to consultation.


This is not the first Green Paper on disability welfare reform that this government has published. Back in 2021, the DWP published ‘Shaping Future Support – The Health and Disability Green Paper’, which in turn led to the subsequent ‘Transforming Support – The Health and Disability White Paper’ in 2023. I shall now quote some choice sections from the foreword to that paper:


  • ‘We know many disabled people want to work and could work, with the right support. We also know that disabled people are more likely to stop working and, once out of work, less likely to return.’

  • ‘That is why we are investing to step up our employment support for disabled people and people with health conditions.’

  • ‘We know that the health and disability benefits system can itself be a barrier to employment because it focuses on what people cannot do, instead of what they can.’


Unsurprisingly, this messaging is familiar. The DWP published this paper under the care of the current Secretary for Work and Pensions Mel Stride MP – but only shortly after the reigns had been taken from Chloe Smith MP, whose tenure briefly followed that of Thérèse Coffey MP. If one were to look at the recent history of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one would see that it is not a position that has lent itself to long tenures, except the Rt Hon Ian Duncan Smith MP, who held the position for six years.


It is important to remember that Green Papers are conceptual – a statement of intent, not draft legislation. The recently discussed changes in Westminster that have been dominating headlines in the mainstream and speciality press would require a bill of enormous significance to pass. A bill that would require a great deal of time to draft, present, read (repeatedly), go to committee, be amended, be reread, and so on.


Even if a bill of this scope were to somehow make it past all the hurdles the Parliamentary system puts in its way and passes into law, it would still be subject to legal challenge and judicial review. A full explanation of the process can be found here.


The current government very likely does not have the time to draft a bill of this scope. The consultation period on the Green Paper will last several months. The results will lead to the creation of a White Paper from which the bill may be drafted.

Same motif as the first graphic, with ‘Even if a bill of this scope were to somehow make it past all the hurdles the Parliamentary system puts in its way and passes into law, it would still be subject to legal challenge and judicial review. The current government very likely does not have the time to draft a bill of this scope’. in bold blue.

However, the threat of a General Election looms large. While the Prime Minister does have until January 2025 to call one (the latest one could be held is on the 28th of January 2025), it’s unlikely that the current government will wait that long. I’m not in the business of political forecasting; if I were, this would not be the place to make any predictions. But when considering the timing of this paper and the recent speeches – to me, a veteran Westminster watcher, it all smacks of electioneering.


We are, expressly, disabled and chronically ill individuals being used as a political football. Is that disgusting and distressing? Yes. Is it anything new? No. I understand that doesn’t make the reality of the situation any better. In fact, it probably makes it worse. To put an entire demographic through this level of mental and emotional distress to score points is, in my opinion, more than distasteful. This of course, comes on the back of the DWP seeking unprecedented powers to interfere in the personal finances of welfare recipients.


To me, and quite possibly to you, reader, the country has felt like an increasingly hostile place for people such as us. I well understand the distress you may be feeling, and rest assured that I feel it, too. I know the worries, the anxiety, the sense of injustice. It is that lattermost feeling that I implore you to focus on. Sign petitions, contact your representatives, and protest if necessary. If you cannot yourself, do what you can to support those who do.


We still live in a representative democracy, and there are avenues to affect change and make our voices heard. So let us make sure they are.

 

The PIP reform consultation closes Tuesday 23 July. 


Same motif as the first graphic, with ‘Sign petitions, contact your representatives, and protest if necessary. If you cannot yourself, do what you can to support those who do. We still live in a representative democracy, and there are avenues to affect change and make our voices heard. So let us make sure they are’. in bold blue

Co-written by Arianne Brown & Stuart Iain

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