I'm sure many of the people who read this blog will have encountered the stories in the news about James Purnell's work for welfare plans. On the face of it, and to particular types of people (generally the ones who are well educated/spoken/connected/balanced/experienced/etc enough to have never had too much trouble getting a job) the plans seem quite reasonable - "severely disabled people" and single parents of babies under one will be supported, everyone else will have to work for their money. And let's face it, those are the people we want to help with our taxes. We've had quite enough of supporting entire workless families like the Malcolm family who fulfil every stereotype of a feckless wastrel benefit scrounger that you ever heard (seriously, whichever reporter dug that lot up deserves a bloody medal).
Why does it bother me anyway? I have a job. Well, it bothers me because I know how extremely lucky I am to have got into a position where I could look for work, let alone how fortunate I was to actually get a job. I know that all it takes is one factor to slip - Steve and I breaking up, a change in Access to Work criteria, the company I work for to collapse - and all of a sudden I will be back on the scrapheap, and in a jobs market which is terrifying compared to what it was a year ago. It also bothers me because I know too many people who are in similar positions to the one I was in before I moved in with Steve, who would like to be working and earning their own money but simply aren't in a position to manage it.
The first problem is this "severely disabled" idea. The criteria for this is incredibly stringent. The Benefits and Work website has a free Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) self-assessment test. I count as disabled, but not severely enough that my capacity for work-related activity would be considered "limited", which has surprised a couple of people who know me.
It's not just me though. Here's an example from the DWP's own guidance (pdf):
"Customer receiving DLA (middle rate care) and DLA(higher rate mobility). A person with severe rheumatoid arthritis affecting the hands and feet, limiting the ability to walk and needing some help to wash, dress, cut up food, and attend to toileting needs. The customer is living alone and nobody receives Carer’s Allowance for looking after him."
That is an example of someone who is NOT considered to have limited capability to undertake work-related activity.
They cannot walk, dress, wash, eat, or go to the loo unaided, but they are considered to be perfectly able to do full work-related activity. And they will face "sanctions" if they cannot manage it.
How on earth does that work?!?
The second problem is the idea of full-time work-related activity or community work. Regular readers will be aware that I recently had to bow out of a great interview for a job that I really wanted to do at a place where I really wanted to work, just because it was full time. I'd love to earn full-time wages but the unfortunate truth is that I cannot manage to do a full-time job AND keep on top of life's essentials such as showering and eating and so on - as we've covered before, I'm pretty stretched just working part-time.
These new plans, however, would have me "working" 9-5, and facing "sanctions" when I failed to manage it. Which brings us neatly on to the third issue, which is rates of pay.
Basic ESA is £60.50 per week, which is the same as Jobseeker's Allowance for a person over 25 years of age. Then there's £24 on top of it for participating in the Work-Related Activity. I understand this is the bit that gets withdrawn if you "refuse to co-operate" by, for example, being stubbornly too ill to leave the house on more than one morning.
I suspect there are very few people reading this who would consider working full time for £85 a week, but disabled people will have a choice between that and real heat-or-eat poverty. You see, there are two good reasons why Incapacity Benefit at the long-term rate is more than Jobseeker's Allowance. The first reason is that a disabled person generally has to cover more costs than an able-bodied person. DLA (supposedly) accounts for the additional personal-care-related and mobility-related costs, for instance Meals on Wheels and taxi fares, but there are also increases in general costs - things like having to do more laundry due to frequently spilling things, buying more trousers because they wear through at the knees as you crawl around your home, or having to have an internet connection because you do not have the capacity to get to and around the local shops nor the supermarket for your essential groceries. The second reason is that it generally takes longer for a disabled person to secure a job, during which time they will have more household expenses of the sort that the able-bodied person on short-term JSA could defer until they'd got a job. I'll explain. Even putting aside issues of access and discrimination at the interview stage... let's say that the odds of getting a job are one in a hundred, so if you apply for a hundred jobs you will get one of them. While an able-bodied person could, technically, apply for every job in the paper that they were qualified for and hit the hundred in a few weeks, a disabled person with the same level of qualifications will only be able to apply for the few jobs that also match their physical capabilities - it could take a year or more to find a hundred suitable jobs to apply for during which time the boiler will still need repairing and the wheelchair will need a service.
Even Reasonable Adjustments and Access to work can't make everything possible. A reminder of a post I made before I got my job:
"I still have certain limitations. The obvious physical symptoms of my illness rule out quite a lot of things, especially in terms of the usual easy-to-get minimum-wage flexible-hours jobs. I don't think I'm in any way 'above' cleaning toilets or serving fast-food or collecting trolleys from a supermarket carpark, but I would do such an ineffective job of those tasks that really, another person would have to be employed just to pick up my slack."
Which brings me to my final point. Even with the job that I do, which looked possible enough to make it worthwhile applying, it costs quite a bit of money to keep me in work. I need taxis to and from work. There are no other transport options available to me so the taxpayer contributes about £40 a week to my taxi fares (I pay the rest). I also have a special machine, a mechanical press, bought by the taxpayer as I cannot use the hand-press my co-worker uses. That was £500. Other people need different things - Lilwatchergirl needed a wheelchair, an office chair, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and a PDA; Lady Bracknell's Editor needed a laptop and "Secure Remote Access System" to enable her to work from home when necessary, plus however many man-hours were required to untangle the inevitable snarl-ups; various other people have required voice recognition software or Braille displays or even actual human assistants to help with certain parts of their work. That's before we even get started on the costs of things of uncertain merit like DEAs and Remploy. All things considered, I suspect there are more than a couple of us who cost more money "working" than they did claiming IB. How will the costs of enabling us to attend and accomplish "work-related activity" be met on top of paying full ESA?
I don't have all, or indeed any of the answers, but what I have heard so far about the reforms strikes me as badly-thought-out and more than a little scary.