Jacqueline Bell spent 28 years working and stopped, with great regret, when she was made redundant by two successive employers for missing days because she was unwell. In her last job as a chamber maid in a hotel, her lung condition made it impossible to find the breath needed to make the beds.
She would like to return to work, but thinks it will be impossible to find an employer ready to accommodate her ill-health. If she did go back to work and then found that for health reasons she was unable to maintain employment, from April next year she would expect to be on a much lower disability benefit than the £102 weekly payment she is now getting. The employment and support allowance (ESA) for new claimants placed in the work-related activity group will be cut by £30 a week, a measure the government has justified by explaining that it will “incentivise” people to find jobs. Bell, 51, believes the policy is “delusional”.
Although the government has announced a U-turn over the cuts to personal independence payments in a bid to contain the political crisis that erupted after the budget, there is mounting anger from recipients of disability benefits over the scale of less-publicised cuts that have not been overturned and are due to take effect from next year.
George Osborne repeatedly insisted at a Treasury select committee hearing on Thursday that he had no plans for future welfare cuts, but this will have been little consolation for around half a million people who will be affected by major reductions already approved by parliament. Dozens of disability protestersoccupied parliament’s central lobby on Wednesday calling on the government to reverse its other disability cuts – reductions, which they said were making claimants feel suicidal.
“Forcing people to work when they can’t work is not going to cure their illness,” Bell says. “You can’t just pull out a spare set of lungs from your back pocket. I will struggle to pay my bills. I really don’t know how I will cope.”
This area of benefits is wrapped up in complex terminology, but the human suffering beneath the various confusingly named benefit sub-sections is so real and so widely felt that mastering the bemusing lexicon of welfare acronyms is vital.
Those already in the work-related activity group will not have their disability benefit cut, but there is real anxiety among claimants about how they would manage if they came off the benefit to take tentative steps into work but then had to come back on to it at the reduced rate. The £30 cut for new ESA claimants in the work-related activity group from April 2017 is equivalent to around a third of the current weekly benefit.
At the moment people who are deemed to be too unwell to work by the government’s work capability assessment, are put into two groups – those judged permanently unable to work are moved into the “support group” and paid £109; those judged to be too ill or disabled to work immediately (but theoretically capable of work at some point in the future) are put in the work-related activity group, and currently receive about £102 a week.
It is new applicants in this group who will see their income cut, after reductions were included in the welfare reform and work bill, which was passed in early March. From this time next year they will receive the same amount of money as jobseeker’s allowance claimants. The change is expected to bring £1.4bn of savings by 2020.
There are almost half a million sick and disabled people receiving this benefit at the moment; the extra money previously recognised that these people are likely to be unemployed for longer than other jobseekers who are not struggling with disabilities or health difficulties.
Most current recipients find it hard to understand the government’s justification that the cut will incentivise people to step up their job search. About 69% of disabled people surveyed by the Disability Benefits Consortium say that cuts to ESA will cause their health to suffer and 45% believe it will mean it takes them longer to return to work. A third said they already had difficulty feeding themselves at the benefit’s current levels. Almost 70% said they would struggle to pay their bills if they were claiming the benefit on the reduced rate.
Dozens of people emailed the Guardian this week to explain how they would be hit if they found themselves receiving £30 a week less. Most said that such a significant cut to their finances would affect their ability to find work.
“I’d probably have to rely on food banks,” wrote one current claimant, who wanted to remain anonymous, calculating the possibility of incorporating a £30 cut to his weekly budget. They added: “It will just sink those who are unwell further into illness through stress.”
William Timmins said that it would mean “that for three days of the week I won’t be able to afford to eat.” Others described how (in addition to struggling with food and heating bills) they would no longer be able to afford an internet connection, which would make complying with the requirement to search for work very difficult.
“It won’t incentivise me to return to work. It will demoralise me and make me feel like I’m completely worthless,” wrote Lauren Stonebanks, 36, a former medical student, unable to continue with her studies because of her mental health illness.
One woman said a cut would make it hard to decide whether to attend doctor’s appointments “or not, given the bus fare, parking charges etc”. She wrote: “We did not cause the financial crisis and it is not acceptable to persecute those unable to work.”
Phil Reynolds, co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium who is also Parkinson’s UK policy adviser, said the cut “laboured under the misapprehension that these people are well enough to go back to work”. He said: “We believe it is not possible to incentivise these people back to work by cutting their benefit.”
Beth Grossman, head of policy and research at disability charity Scope, said: “Half a million disabled people will be affected by the reduction in employment and support allowance – losing around £30 a week – at a time when they are already struggling to make ends meet. We have significant concerns that reducing support will not only have a harmful impact on financial wellbeing but will also push disabled people further from the workplace.”
Both said they felt the significance of this looming cut had been wrongly overlooked this week as the government highlighted its readiness to backtrack on PIP cuts.
Bell, who lives in Paisley, has been to court three times to appeal after being refused disability benefits (each time a judge ruled in her favour), and is currently in the work-related activity group, so expects eventually to see her income reduced by a third. Last November she was in hospital with pneumonia and pleurisy when she received a letter telling her she was required to engage in “intensive work-related activity”; she feels under constant pressure to comply with jobcentre requirements that are beyond her capabilities.
“I worked hard for years, and paid into the system,” she said. “I was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder when I was 35 and I didn’t give up. I went on working until I couldn’t work any more. I loved working – it got me out of the house, mixing with other adults instead of just being stuck at home with the kids.
“I would love to go work again and have a normal life, but who is going to employ me?.”