The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, issued a "back to work budget" on 15th March and this was followed by the publication of Transforming Support. The Health and Disability White Paper. The White Paper sets out the government's planned changes to the benefit system and again has a strong emphasis on getting Disabled people into work. (The White Paper follows Shaping Future Support. The Health and Disability Green Paper issued in 2021 about which Liberation expressed a wide range of concerns at the time.)
The government proposes getting rid of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used to decide whether people are well enough to work when they apply for Employment Support Allowance, or Universal Credit. (The plan is to start making the change in 2029, following new legislation.) An end to the WCA should be tremendous news, given how much harm it has caused. However, the government now intends to use Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments as a single form of assessment to determine benefits. That is very worrying. Not only are PIP assessments often not fit for purpose, but they have themselves caused untold harm. It is concerning, too, that the government intends not just to maintain, but to increase the use of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) in job centres; quite apart from basic flaws in IAPT, there are obstacles to it being used impartially in job centres, given that it will have a pre-set agenda in these settings.
In addition, the government plans both to increase from 15 to18 hours the number of hours which someone must work in order to avoid sanctions and to apply sanctions more rigorously. In theory, this will apply only to people "without a health condition". However, the reality is that all too many Disabled people have been found fit to work when they are not and that sanctions have not only proved ineffective in increasing employment numbers, but have caused huge mental trauma.
An additional concern is the government's renewed expression of determination to meet the welfare cap which it has in place (currently due to be overspent by a very large amount). A major worry is that this will again result in social security cuts, despite the fact that many people already cannot afford basic essentials, are even dying because of that. Quite apart from the inhumanity involved, deprivation just creates a vicious circle; people who cannot afford basics become ill and/or more mentally traumatised and so even less able to work.
The government is promising better experiences of the benefit system. However, there is a lack of emphasis on the vital need to work in partnership with user-led organisations if real improvements are to be achieved. That is noticeable both in the White Paper as a whole and in sections which specifically relate to mental distress, for example paragraphs 46-49. The specialist benefit assessors now planned by the government could be a step forward - could overcome the problem that assessors quite often do not understand particular issues which someone has. (This has been a particular issue for people experiencing mental distress, for example.) Similarly, the Universal Support Programme and the provision for people to keep their Universal Credit while they try out work could be steps forward. However, a lot will depend on how these measures are set up.
Plans to share benefit assessment reports with Disabled people before a decision is made and to record assessments electronically, if people request that, could also be steps forward, though the latter depends on having IT access, of course.
More general budget measures include:
- Extending the energy price guarantee until June; this is likely to keep an average energy bill at £2,500. However, much more effective measures are still needed to cover the extra costs which Disabled people often incur
- Dropping extra charges on pre-payment meters. This is a positive move.