Friday, January 27, 2006

Incapacity benefit: not fully chewed but...

As I have worked - and continue to work - with disabled adults, the issue of incapacity benefit has long been a source of fury to me. Frankly, the standard of living [existence] on benefits for the vast majority of people continues to be a disgrace despite all the efforts of the Labour government to improve/clarify benefit provision. I'm being charitable there because the benefit system is an incredibly complex beast which government has the unenviable task of making the populace swallow paying taxes for in a climate where increasingly we are inadvertently [deliberately?] labelling people as deserving and undeserving poor. The current difficulties come out of long-term problems and circumstances and at this point I see no logic in 'blaming' the current Labour government for the situation any more than I would seek to shift the blame to the previous lengthier Conservative administration [7 years ain't a blip, but it's scarcely halfway to the 15 years* of the past administration in terms of social impact]: political and social systems more broadly contribute to the problem. [* UPDATE: thanks Neil for pointing out that should read 18 years; a fact I well know but must have somehow been repressing...]

Anyway, taking as the jumping off point the recent Bloggers4Labour debate, I accept that it would be a wonderful thing that "The more severely disabled people will receive a higher rate of benefit and have no obligation to look for work." Fabulous idea and far better than the ludicrous situation where people have to keep justifying themselves, experiencing loss of income and then the erratic reimbursement of benefit arrears: people who are no position to keep on doing this performance, and indeed are adversely affected by having to do so.

However, there is at least a problem there in defining "severely disabled." Do we mean those disabled people requiring 24 hour care? What kind of care? Some may nevertheless want to work in some form, but may require exceptionally specialist support from both the state in terms of getting them into suitable jobs and also employers meeting disability legislation requirements... or are we going to tell those who might fall into that category that because the new incapacity benefit deems them suitably "severely disabled" they not only are not required to look for work/to work but will not be provided with advice and assistance in working?

I'm not especially ideologically stunted enough to refuse to ignore the practicalities of government rethinking how and why the benefits system should work. However, currently the benefit system in part effectively subsidises employers paying inadequate wages to meet a certain basic standard of living and proposed plans for amending Incapacity Benefit hardly seem to address how employers will be encouraged/forced to deal with inadequate wages.

One could also look at the issue of how compulsion will operate for those deemed to be able to look for work: I was discussing this with Cloud the other night when he suggested that accepting that some claiming incapacity benefit have no desire to work [no where near as many, nor costing as much, as those defrauding the state via endless accountancy tax scams], such people will generally find ways to march through the required hoops to enable them to continue claiming. I argued that it was likely to turn out to be much more complex than that, given that the intention is reduce the bill for benefits [I hold no truck with the concept that this change to Incapacity Benefit is intended to solely reduce the costs of that one benefit: otherwise the government might as well say it is happy for the overall benefit budget to continue at the same level, just shifting it away from coming under the Incapacity budget]. I would say 'what is the compulsion and will it operate as a sliding scale or a continuous activity? That is, are we looking at: you've applied for X jobs in the last 6 months... "and was shortlisted/interviewed Y times so you can carry on claiming; "you did not get any interviews so you can only carry on claiming providing..."; "you did not get any interviews because they weren't 'appropriate' so you must now apply for A..."? Anyone who is a graduate is likely to testify to the general inability of the job centres etc to appropriately support and understand their search for work. I dread to imagine how some of the vulnerable students I have worked with in recent years, who potentially fall under Incapacity Benefit, will fare under the combined weight of the new regime and the long-term relative inability of job centres to advise the graduate sector. As Paul Leake outlined in his comment to the B4L debate "The problem for me isn't the principle ... but the practice".

B4L also said:

Nobody's saying it will be easy for many of these people to find work - especially with lingering symptoms and side-effects of their sickness - but at least a job search can begin, people have something to aim at, to train for, and can try to change their lives.
I think this again somewhat misses the point, not just because of finding the right sort of work, but also the number of hours that the person could work and the level of income that could provide [see the post below for further comments on the concept of 'minimum income', an issue which B4L seems utterly prepared to ignore when he goes on to remark "If you can work, you should, even if it is for less than the JA, not least because of all the other non-wage benefits of employment as against unemployment" - I'll come back to this one shortly in this lengthy post].

In the B4L comments, Tom raised the idea that cutting the benefits of the weakest went against socialist principles [it's that word!], spurring B4L to respond that what such an attitude
demonstrate[s] is a sentimental attachment to "the weakest" without any obvious concern to offer them new opportunities, or a route out of poverty, because they are - as I suggested above - a political pawn to be used in an ideological New/Old Labour-style battle, which is far more important to its participants than the people who actually need money and jobs to live.
OUCH! Needless to say, things got worse from there with B4L digging himself in deeper with this further response:
I do think sentimentalism is the right word to use when well-intentioned measures to help those who can work, and to reduce dependency, are condemned just because some - who can work and refuse to be helped, but are sheltered by their victim status - may lose out.
And this, one could say, takes us to one specific aspect of the problem raised earlier in my mentioning 'deserving and undeserving poor': what the purpose of benefits actually is. There is a widespread perception that certain factions of the left effectively defend and perpetuate "victim status" upon the weakest members of society, but surely it is even worse to ignore how complex and demeaning the benefit system can be? There may be handfuls who have become immune, perhaps perversely have even come to thrive on having to navigate the benefits system 'successfully', but this says more about our attitudes towards class and (participation in) society than about the amounts of money available [we'll leave for another time debates about the impact of celebrity culture encouraging ridiculously large proportions of young people to want to "BE" famous as a career/life status/identity]. Wanting to work is not the same as being able to work, let alone the same as being able to work and earn sufficient for doing more than existing (a situation that does much more damage to self-confidence and mental health than may be believed). It is not impossible to imagine a person saying to themselves: "I'm working and I'm STILL not off benefit and all that entails because what I can earn and the working standards I have to experience are so poor that I'm still at the bottom of the social pile."

Much trumpeting was made in the news on how changes to the incapacity benefit in a trial project had supported a woman who had experienced mental health difficulties to come off incapacity benefit. But she was now running her own business - hardly an option that is going to be suitable for every person, let alone a substantial majority of those on incapacity benefit. And let's not kid ourselves as to how hideous the spiral of mental illness can be, nor the appalling attitudes that pervade in the workplace once it comes to actually working with or employing people with mental health problems [I've seen this in practice: one thing for employers to say they're supportive, quite another to BE supportive].

Deluded as I may be, I think government does have an obligation to ensure (1) that poverty, relative or otherwise is minimised if not eradicated, not least in this country and that people are given dignity and respect to live their lives. Ensuring opportunities to work, and assistance to participate in the workplace are but one part of that. But this leads me to (2): that government also has an obligation to ensure that employers are encouraged to pay wages appropriate to minimising/eradicating poverty, rather than their profits being subsidised by government benefits and the procedural nonsense that goes with so many of them.

Minimum income for all? Absolutely.

I now await your punches.


SimonHolyHoses said...

Nice post Lisa.

Hmmm. Just how has it happened that there's a pervasive assumption that anyone who claims benefits is undeserving until they prove otherwise?

Obviously there has to be some element of justification in the claims process, but outside the system, it does feel as though the public in general are unsympathetic.

Why is that? Are most people just selfish to the point of been glad to see others struggle? The very fact that not thinking that way can be described as sentimental proves the point, doesn't it?

JoeinVegas said...

But you could always do as the Bush group in the US does: just state that next year the welfare rolls will only cover half as many people. Let the states decide who to cut. Irregardless of need or capacity.
Sounds like most of the big governments become cold hearted when in charge.

Alan said...

I couldn't agree more. My brother has been on benefits for most of his adult life, since being diagnosed schizophrenic at the age of 18 (he's 48 now). This is a very intelligent guy we're talking about, left school with top grades in his A levels, could easily have gone on to a degree.

Obviously he didn't plan to spend his life this way, but when he's at his worst there is plainly no way he could hold down a job, and even at his best it would be difficult.

He takes in bits of work when he can, self-publishing work mostly, something he knows how to do and which puts no pressure on him. It doesn't pay a lot but he's managed to get things mostly together for himself, he may not have the best of lives but at least he has a worthwhile one.

The point being, he is by no means unique. People can derive genuine help through benefits and just because a few may abuse the system doesn't mean that the majority should be penalised for it.

Neil Harding said...

What this all boils down to is;

1. Everyone should have a decent income that provides basic shelter, food, clothing, energy etc.

If we only provide this means-tested, people will always find a way of manipulating benefits, or turn to crime in general or will starve and/or become homeless.

If we don't want any of these things to happen we have to provide this income.

We are the fourth richest country in the world and the vast majority of people here want to work, we can definitely afford this and have a moral duty to do it.

2. A citizen's income is the most efficient way of doing this because it removes the financial disincentives to work that are the problem and has the benefit of getting rid of a lot of bureaucracy. This will enable everyone to work when and where they are able to, with their earnings topping up their basic income. Problem solved!

PS. Just need to point out the Tories were in power for 18 long long years not 15 as you suggest, I remember every painful single one of them, thats why I know!