Challenge Poverty Week

PrintIt’s Challenge Poverty Week.  I’ve contributed a blog post to ‘Let’s discuss Poverty’ a blog site with contributions from writers and academics across Scotland, writing about their research on poverty. There are blogs on women, sanctions, children, students, and one from me on history. Have a look here

Challenge Poverty Week is co-ordinated by the Poverty Alliance. Here’s what they say about Challenge Poverty Week  17-23 October 2015:

“More than 900,000 people in Scotland live in low income households. In a rich country like ours this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Challenge Poverty Week is an opportunity for you to raise you voice against poverty and show what is being done to tackle poverty across. Organisations large and small supported Challenge Poverty Week last year, and we hope even more get behind it this year. 

The main aims of the week are to:

  • Highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes about exist about it;
  • Demonstrate what is being done across Scotland to address poverty
  • Increase public support for more action to combat poverty 

We are encouraging as many groups and individuals to get involved in Challenge Poverty Week by organising activities or taking part in activities organised by others.”

For information on events go to http://povertyalliance.org/challenge_poverty

and on Twitter #CPW15

Share Button

Severe Disablement Allowance in Scotland

This week I have been thinking about the proposals to devolve some welfare benefits to the Scottish Parliament.  You can find the detailed proposals in Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement here.  One of the proposals that has been puzzling me is the plan to devolve powers for ‘Benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are ill’ (page 51).  This proposes to devolve Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Carers Benefit,  Personal Independence Payment and Industrial Injuries Benefits.  These are benefits for ‘carers and disabled people’.  But who are they thinking about when they say they are going to devolve benefits for ‘people who are ill’?  Most of us would imagine that this meant people who are short term sick (who might currently be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay or an employer’s sick pay scheme) or perhaps people who might be currently entitled to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  But the Report is quite clear that ESA and the new Universal Credit will remain reserved to Westminster.  The only benefit to be devolved which appears to be for ‘people who are ill’ is Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA).  Now this is a strange thing.  Severe Disablement Allowance was stopped in 2001 and the only people who qualify for it are people who were eligible at that point and who have a continuing entitlement.  There is a program to transfer all of those claimants to ESA eventually. This clause looks as if it is proposing to give the Scottish Parliament powers to decide what to do with the people who are currently claiming SDA in Scotland, but that is all.  According to government statistics there were around 25,000 people claiming SDA in Scotland in 2011. I can’t immediately find up-to-date figures but the number will be less now that some of those will have been transferred to ESA. What puzzles me is why this benefit has been included in the plans to devolve disability benefits while all the other ‘earnings replacement’ benefits for disabled people will remain reserved to Westminster.

Severe Disablement Allowance and history

So what does this have to do with my research on the history of incapacity benefits?  Severe Disablement Allowance has an interesting history because it was first introduced in 1983 to replace the discredited and sexist Non-contributory Invalidity Pension and Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension.  It was designed to make sure that roughly the same number of people who had qualified for NCIP and HNCIP would qualify.  It was always an unusual benefit because it was non-means-tested and non-contributory and paid at a lower rate than most other contributory benefits.  This meant that the people who qualified for it either had to depend on means-tested benefits as well or had other income, for example from a working partner or a pension or private income from another source.  The main people who really benefitted from it were married women with working partners – the very people that HNCIP had attempted to exclude.  When it was abolished in 2001 these married or cohabiting women were the people most likely to lose out again (Wikely 2000).

Was there a mistake?

So why has it been included in the proposals to devolve benefits to Scotland?  I suspect it is not because of its convoluted history. Having a whole new separate set of rules for the remaining 25,000 or so claimants in Scotland seems quite bizarre and it is very strange that this is the only earnings replacement disability benefit to be devolved. The Scotland in the United Kingdom report makes a snide comment about the Smith Commission when it comments on its failure to get its terms right in relation to industrial injuries benefits ‘This is not at term used by the UK Government’ (p51, footnote 5).  There is a form of industrial injuries benefit called Exceptionally Severe Disablement Allowance. This is paid to people with impairments as a result of an industrial injury or disease which means they need constant care and attention and are likely to need this on a permanent basis.  Is it possible that this is what the Smith Commission meant to recommend devolving and that neither report understood what it meant when it proposed to devolve Severe Disablement Allowance?

Maybe I’ve missed something but these proposals only add to the strange and confused history of Severe Disablement Allowance and its predecessors.

References

Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement Cm 8990, (2015) London, HMSO

Smith, (2015) The Smith Commission: Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament

Wikely, N (2000) ‘Social Security and Disability ‘ in  Harris, N. (Ed.), Social Security Law in Context. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Share Button

Poverty and disability benefits: a view from the past

Print

This week is Challenge Poverty Week, organised by the Poverty Alliance and aiming to increase awareness of poverty in Scotland.  Poverty is unacceptable and is a continuing problem in modern Scotland.  As part of the week of action I contributed to a blog, along with other researchers on different aspects of poverty.  I thought I would share my post here.

Poverty and disability are closely linked

Researchers have shown that disabled people are more likely to be out of work, in poorly paid jobs and living in poverty than other groups in society.  As a result many disabled people find themselves claiming welfare benefits, including Employment and Support Allowance if they find it difficult to work.  My research concerns the history of incapacity benefits, that is, social security benefits for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability.  As I set out to write this post, I wondered what the relevance of this work was for ‘Challenge poverty’ week.  After all, ‘challenge poverty’ is about today and anti-poverty campaigners sometimes have an uphill struggle to show that poverty is a problem today, with critics often pointing to the past to show how much worse things used to be.  Others on the challenge poverty blog can explain why poverty is such a problem today.

My task is to show how many of the debates about poverty today are rooted in questions which have been around since the beginning of the welfare state and beyond.  To show this, let’s have a look at some quotations about people claiming disability benefits.  Can you guess the date?

Guess the date of these quotations

  1. Against the continued advance of a tide of unjustified claims to [] benefit there are two main lines of defence. The first is the adoption of measures to secure that a proper standard is applied in the issue of medical certificates for incapacity while the second consists in strengthening the safeguards to be adopted by [decision makers] in connection with the supervision of claims
  2. A life of idleness is bad for [her], and in our judgment she would have no difficulty in the present state of the domestic labour market, in obtaining suitable remunerative employment which is well within her physical capacity. In her own best interests we strongly recommend the appellant to get work.
  3. A … person may be regarded as incapable of work because he is unable to travel to work, but it does not follow that because he is unable to travel to his former employment he is entitled to sickness benefit. It is the duty of a .. person to do what is reasonably necessary to regain his position as a wage earner and so overcome the effects of any physical disability which he may be under.

[answers at the bottom of the page]

 Implications for benefits today

These quotations show that policy makers have been worrying about how to define incapacity for work since the very first sickness benefits in 1911.  This concern has led to tough and intrusive mechanisms for checking up on people across the 20th century.  The continuing theme which we can see in the development of incapacity benefits is one of distrust:  that people cannot be trusted to claim benefits honestly and that there must always be mechanisms for checking up on them and keeping them in line.  There has also been a continuing argument that ‘work is good for you’ and that people have a duty to get back to work as soon as possible after illness or disability.

Critics of disability benefits policies today argue that access to benefits has become more difficult, first of all by the redefinition of ‘incapacity for work’ brought about by Employment and Support Allowance and, secondly, by the introduction of work requirements for claimants.  Both of these changes to benefits policy have made life more difficult for people claiming benefits but the ideas behind them are not new.

The relationship to poverty

So what does this have to do with poverty?  It is well established that people with health problems and disabilities find it more difficult to get work, to stay in work and to earn adequate wages and that these difficulties are intensified for people with low educational qualifications.  So ‘incapacity for work’ has a direct link with poverty.  If the benefits paid to people because they are unable to work (or to find work) are kept deliberately low, poverty becomes even further entrenched.  It is even worse for those who are refused benefits when the definition of incapacity for work is tightly drawn. Policy makers claim that they make it difficult to claim benefits and that they keep payments low in order to ‘make work pay’ and to encourage people get back to work.  That is all very well when decently paid work is available and the barriers to work are removed.  But so long as these barriers exist, people will need adequate benefit payments to keep them out of poverty.

Dates of quotations

  1. 1931 Ministry of Health circular ‘National Health Insurance control of Expenditure on Sickness and Disablement Benefits’
  2. 1920 Appeal hearing against a refusal of sickness benefit
  3. 1917 Annual report of National Health Insurance Committee 

Further reading

Bambra, C. (2011) Work, worklessness and the political economy of health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roulstone, A. and Prideaux, S. (2012) Understanding Disability Policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

blog first published on the Challenge Poverty blog

Share Button

Employment and Support Allowance – a flawed design?

A recent report on the UK’s main disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) said that the current system for assessing benefits was ‘flawed’. This report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments First Report of Session 2014-15 HC302 brings into sharp focus the problems of attempting to measure people’s ‘incapacity for work’.

A controversial procedure

ESA was introduced in 2008 as the latest attempt by governments to find a way of assessing whether or not someone was unfit for work. ESA has been controversial since it was first introduced and concerns with it have multiplied as researchers, disability campaigners and support organisations for people with long term health conditions have shown how the system has impacted on real people. For many people it has meant a loss of much-needed income, leading to hardship and distress. Even when people have successfully claimed the benefit, the assessment procedures and delays have caused considerable anxiety and financial hardship for claimants.

Demonstration against cuts in disability benefits

Much of the criticism of the system has been directed at ATOS, the organisation contracted to carry out assessments but this report reminds us that implementation by ATOS is only part of the problem. There are fundamental problems with the policy itself, which a change to a different provider in late 2014 will not solve. One of the key difficulties has been the way in which a points based system of assessment, where people are awarded points for different levels of impairment, cannot take account of the complexity of people’s experience in the real world of work.

Looking to the past

If we look at the question in its historical context we can see why this is. Ever since the first introduction of sickness benefits in 1911, policy makers have worried about how to assess whether someone was ‘really’ unfit for work. In 1951, after forty years of attempting to define what ‘incapacity for work’ meant, legal decision makers came up with a working definition:

‘A person is incapable of work … if, having regard to his age, education, experience, state of health and other personal factors, there is no work or type of work which he can be reasonably expected to do. By ‘work’ in this connection we mean remunerative work that is to say work whether part-time or whole time for which an employer would be willing to pay, or work as a self-employed person in some gainful occupation’ [National Insurance Commissioners’ Decision R(S)11/51, para 5]

This definition was not perfect and the benefits system in the mid-twentieth century left many disabled people without access to income but at least it attempted to take account of the varieties of social experience which combine with poor health and disability to make finding work difficult.

Taking account of the real world of work

The current system which is used to assess Employment and Support Allowance cannot do this. The House of Commons report makes this point by emphasising that many people who are found ‘fit for work’ (and refused benefits), or who qualify for benefits but are expected to look for work, are being failed by the system. The procedure does not take account of the support that they would need to find work in the real world. The report says that the statement that someone is ‘fit for work’ should be ‘conditional on this support being available’ (para 141). While criticising the current assessment process for ESA and calling for a fundamental review of the mechanisms, the report does not suggest replacing the points system altogether. It continues in its search for an ‘accurate’ measurement of people’s incapacity (p3) but it does this within an understanding that real people’s experiences of attempting to find work depend on a range of social circumstances which go a long way beyond the simplistic measures that a points system can assess. The report also recognises that refusing people benefits is not the same as helping them to find work, a first step in moving beyond the current government’s view of the problem.

Share Button