UK’s new back to work plan will make life even harder for disabled people

The UK chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has unveiled new rules for welfare benefit claimants. Under the government’s back to work plan, £2.5 billion of funding is to be allocated to employment support schemes with the aim of getting over 1 million people with long-term health conditions or disabilities, as well as those who are long-term unemployed, back into work.

As part of these plans, the government is planning to implement tougher sanctions for people who are judged to not be taking appropriate steps to secure work. The proposed punitive measures include suspending benefit claims altogether and stopping access to free medical prescriptions and legal aid.

Alongside this, the government intends to make significant changes to the work capability assessment, which is used to decide whether or not someone is fit for work. These changes would take effect from 2025 and could result in over 370,000 people receiving less benefit.

Additional support to help people find and stay in work should always be welcomed. However, disability charities have expressed significant concerns. James Taylor, director of strategy at the disability equality charity Scope has described the plans as all “stick and no carrot” and lacking a clear vision for disability employment.

The Centre for Mental Health has warned about the harmful and coercive impact of sanctions for people with mental health problems and pejorative language towards people who are not working.

And the charity Disability Right UK has emphasised how important welfare benefits are as a source of income for those who cannot work. Threatening to remove benefits, therefore, is damaging and counter-productive.

How welfare reform has failed

Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions, has described the proposals as the “next generation of welfare reforms”. The government claims that its approach to disability benefits over the last decade demonstrates a commitment to supporting disabled people to live independent and active lives.

However, according to a 2018 review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, this existing programme of welfare reform has impacted disabled people the most. It has weakened the welfare safety net, introduced punitive benefit sanctions, created unnecessary complexities and, crucially, slashed levels of benefit payments.

Between 2008 and 2018, disabled people experienced average reductions in benefit payments of £1,200 per year.

The group Disabled People Against Cuts protests in 2014 against austerity measures.
Guy Corbishley|Alamy

The chancellor’s proposals do nothing to address these deep seated cuts or the existing problems in the disability benefits system. These include low levels of payment, complex forms, medical assessments which don’t appropriately recognise the challenges people face and short-term payments which leave people in a persistent cycle of claims and assessment.

The UK’s disability benefits system has also attracted international criticism. In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Disabled People found that welfare reform in the UK had led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled peoples’ rights – in particular, the rights to an adequate standard of living and to employment.

Similarly, in 2018, the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights judged that people with disabilities were among those hardest hit by welfare reform.

In my research, I have found that communication with the Department for Work and Pensions is often poor. People have difficulty recording their complex needs on formulaic forms. Further, they report finding the assessment processes stressful and feeling judged.

How to make things right

The government’s new plan would extend the role of commercial companies in working with benefit claimants to assess their needs. However, my recent study shows that using private providers often makes things worse.

The use of private providers often fails to produce accurate and timely assessment of needs. The staff hired by these companies often schedule only short appointments with disabled claimants whom they have never met before. They may not even have specialist knowledge of the claimant’s disability.

The new plan also fails to address the ongoing, systemic barriers that disabled people face in finding and retaining work. Research shows disabled people earn less and are more likely to be unemployed. When in work, they experience inflexible or discriminatory workplace attitudes, lack of reasonable adjustments and inaccessible transport.

Analysis from British charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that households with a disabled person are more likely to be in poverty and are disproportionately impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.

It is estimated that households with at least one disabled adult or child require an extra £975 per month to maintain the same standard of living as households without a disability. This is often linked to extra costs for energy, transport and equipment.

The current disability benefit system already fails to adequately meet these additional costs, which contributes to financial hardship. The back to work plan risks making finances even tighter with stricter conditions and sanctions.

Research shows that disabled people are far more likely to be sanctioned for failing to comply with benefit rules than non-disabled claimants. This effectively pushes claimants further into financial hardship.

Disability Rights UK has called for an annual, independent assessment of the level of needs of disabled people. In September 2023, organisations advocating for disabled people’s rights across England collectively launched the Disabled People’s Manifesto.

This calls for a progressive reform programme to tackle disablist policies, including stopping sanctions, increasing disability benefits to reflect true costs of living and engaging in genuine consultation with people with disabilities.

If Hunt’s plan goes through unchallenged, the disability benefits system will persist in not meeting the needs of disabled people. This will only create further, unnecessary stress, while failing to remove barriers to employment.