Employment

Rishi Sunak says people on benefits don't want to work – here's why that's 'wrong and harmful'

According to new Citizens Advice analysis, the idea that 'people receiving disability benefits are unwilling to work' is 'wrong and harmful'

dwp protest

Disabled people are left without support because of failures of the benefits system. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the launch of the Conservative general election manifesto 2024, prime minister Rishi Sunak reiterated plans to slash benefits and reform welfare.

“In this party, we believe it is morally right that people who can work, do work,” he said at Silverstone race course on Tuesday (11 June).

A report released this week reveals just how dangerous this rhetoric is. According to new Citizens Advice analysis, the idea that “people receiving disability benefits are unwilling to work” is “wrong and harmful”.

The proportion of working-age disabled people in employment is 28% fewer than the proportion of non-disabled people in employment. But don’t blame disabled people for this gap, urges the organisation.

“Despite the barriers and challenges faced, many disabled people want to work: 22% of economically inactive disabled people want to find a job, compared to 15% of non-disabled people,” the report reads.

“But this is a right currently being denied by patchy employment support and counter-productive claims processes, as well as wider labour market problems such as a lack of flexible working in many workplaces.”

A record 2.8 million people are out of work due to long term sickness. To tackle this, the Conservative government recently announced a raft of welfare reforms, including tightening access to extra universal credit and personal independence payment (PIP), and increasing the use of sanctions to punish claimants deemed not to be looking for work.

However, these changes – described by disability charity Scope as a “full on assault” on disabled people – misdiagnose the root cause of the problem.

“We need to discard the mistaken belief that inadequate benefits incentivise disabled people to find work despite the difficulties,” Citizens Advice warns.

Disability benefits are crucial to prevent people from falling into debt.

Citizens Advice supported 370,000 people with disability benefits last year. Those who received PIP and no other disability benefits had an average surplus in their monthly budget of just £14 after paying for essentials.

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In contrast, the organisation’s disabled debt clients receiving no disability benefits had a deficit – a negative budget – of £62 every month on average, meaning they can’t cover their essential costs.

“Even when spending is reduced to the lowest possible levels, their income isn’t enough,” the new report reads.

For those receiving PIP but no other disability benefits, nearly 90% would be pushed into a negative budget if they stopped receiving PIP.

“Every aspect of how the system as it stands is letting down disabled people who have to fight to access essential financial support,” the report authors said.

“The value of benefits is being driven down and eligibility for what remains becomes ever narrower. This does not mean fewer disabled people: instead it means fewer disabled people are getting the support they need.”

The psychological impact of this process is huge. Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced plans to formally investigate whether the Department of Work and Pensions has “broken the law” in its treatment of disabled benefits claimants.

The probe comes after several vulnerable people died following rejected benefit assessments. In 2018, 57-year-old Errol Graham reportedly died of starvation in Nottingham after his benefit payments were stopped. In 2013, former soldier David Clapson was found dead from diabetic ketoacidosis 18 days after his benefits were sanctioned.

Instead of harsh, ad-hoc reforms, Citizens Advice have called for an overhaul of the disability benefits system, making it easier to claim and reducing the frequency of stressful re-assessment processes.

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