Opinion

DWP has the power to help people. Why is it choosing to threaten disabled people instead?

Sumi Rabindrakumar, head of policy at the UK's largest food bank network the Trussell Trust, argues that the government is taking the wrong approach in trying to boost the economy

dwp

Disabled people are left without support because of failures of the benefits system. Illustration: Lou Kiss

Last week the prime minister confirmed the government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will consult on further reforms to health-related benefits. The speech was heavy on rhetoric, but light on credible solutions which will help people excluded from work or address the unacceptably high numbers of disabled and sick people facing hunger and hardship across the UK.

Around seven in ten people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network are disabled. That’s seven in ten people facing such hunger and hardship they’ve had no choice but to turn to their local food bank.

As organisations like Scope have long pointed out, life costs more for disabled people. And the view from our frontline shows systems that should protect us are clearly failing disabled people on the lowest incomes. Too many cannot afford even the essentials.

The prime minister’s speech last week was a jarring contrast to this evidence, and to the daily experience of so many disabled people. Many have already roundly rejected its tone and direction. Two dispiriting themes stood out for food banks desperate to see action to stem the rising tide of need.

First, using threats to push people into work. Talk about ‘fit note culture’ and increasing job-seeking conditions looks misguided. The reality is that people leaving employment through sick notes is not a particular problem in the UK, not least due to our incredibly low rate of statutory sickness pay. Proposed tighter sanctions are tinkering around the edges, with little likelihood of success and a high risk of worsening the very issues they are intended to solve.

The DWP’s own evaluation shows sanctions don’t make the average claimant more likely to get a job and, if you do, you earn less. Other studies show conditionality to be particularly ineffective for disabled people. And some proposals are forecast to cost the government, rather than save money.

Second, withdrawing financial support. The UK government has already announced work capability assessment reforms to tighten eligibility for additional universal credit support (for people assessed as having ‘limited capability for work related activity’).

Last week’s speech went further, announcing a consultation on PIP reform, including eligibility. Yet changes to WCA rules are expected to have minimal impact on employment, at a huge cost to the 371,000 disabled people forecast to lose out on £390 a month by 2028-29.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is primarily a cost-cutting exercise, rather than a “moral mission” to put work at the centre of the social security system.

Any government looking at public spending – let alone better outcomes for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions – will need to grapple with the reality of rapidly increasing ‘economic inactivity’ and the rising cost of disability benefits like personal independence payments (PIP).

And the prime minister and secretary of state for work and pensions are right to push for reforms which mean anyone who can and wants to work is better supported to do so – particularly disabled people, who tend to be so poorly served by employment support and employers alike.

But threats of tick-box conditions and cutting already precarious incomes are ineffective at best, and risk making health conditions and employment prospects much worse. Last week’s announcements were virtually silent on tackling the drivers of these trends. Any reading of the evidence shows that people have got sicker and the rates of particular conditions have got demonstrably worse. It’s a curious logic to see increased need and cut support in response.

Reform of our system of disability benefits – particularly WCA and PIP – is long overdue. The system is not fulfilling its purpose in either supporting people into work or preventing extreme financial hardship. But we’ve heard a lot about what we shouldn’t provide, and precious little about what we should be offering.



The UK government has itself made welcome steps in piloting the kinds of specialist voluntary employment support, and integrated health and work provision, that might make a difference. Yet the scale of these efforts pale in comparison to the focus on income cuts. Better health and financial security are closely intertwined. Damage one, and you will certainly damage the other – to the detriment of individuals, communities and the wider economy.

Despite the evidence, we’ve heard a lot of sound and fury; does it signify nothing? The UK government is clearly attempting to draw political dividing lines on social security. Little that is announced now will be implemented before a general election. Even so, this matters.

People working to support disabled people will now use finite resources responding to and trying to limit the traction of damaging policy ideas. Most importantly, disabled people and people with health conditions must listen while our political leaders avoid or misrepresent the harsh realities they face.

Nearly half of people facing hunger are disabled. Voters want to see change. And food banks and other grassroots organisations cannot continue to hold back the tide.

This government, and any political party seeking to lead the next government, must take note. We know what’s driving people to food banks, so we know what will end hunger for good. As we wait for the DWP’s new PIP proposals, our message is clear.

We need our politicians to rise above rhetoric and engage with genuine solutions. Until then, disabled people will continue to be failed by the systems that should protect them, and our crisis in living standards will continue to damage the nation’s health and hold back the economy.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is head of policy at the Trussell Trust.

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