Work and pensions secretary, Damien Green claims to be bringing a more benevolent approach to reforming welfare. But Ruth Patrick argues that the decrease in the benefits cap shows he hasn’t entirely abandoned the old agenda and rhetoric.
As a supposedly compassionate conservative, the new Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, has made big promises to change the political language on welfare. In a recent interview with The Times, he pledged to banish the strivers and skivers rhetoric of his predecessors, and also bigged up his new government’s commitment to doing away with repeat reassessments of entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for some disabled people. While all of this is to be welcomed, it must not mask the fact that Theresa May’s government is continuing with the package of welfare reforms already timetabled for between now and 2020. One which has been recently announced is the roll out of a lower household benefits cap, which will fall to £23,000 for households in London and £20,000 for those outside the capital city from November.
The Benefits cap was consistently defended by George Osborne – in particular – on the basis of fairness. He argued that it is not right or fair that those on benefits have choices and options open to them that those struggling to get by in work simply can’t make. He talked of households on benefits being able to afford to rent their own home in central London, while those in work had to live with parents as they simply cannot afford the high rents. It is also suggested that the reform creates behavioural change, as those on benefits move into work after seeing their benefit income fall. Both of these claims can be critiqued, but importantly they are arguments found to have traction with the general public, many of whom are supportive of the cap.
With both the current cap and its reduction, certain groups and benefits are exempt from its impact, including – critically – many disabled people. You are not affected if you or a household member is in the Support Group of ESA, or if someone in the household is in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payments (PIP). However, this leaves many disabled people still potentially affected. Specifically, this includes those in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA who do not receive either DLA or PIP, and those who view themselves as disabled but are found fit for work by a Work Capability Assessment. Analysis by the DWP suggests that 3,100 households with someone claiming ESA have already been affected by the benefits cap, and they and others will be affected by its further reduction.
Despite the arguments of Osborne and his allies, there are real questions about the fairness of the benefits cap, especially as it legislates to break the link between entitlement and need. Its fairness is particularly dubious given its application to disabled people. Disabled people did not choose to be disabled and this undermines the whole premise on which politicians commonly defend the cap. Further, while Osborne might have argued that those affected can simply move into work (as if finding a job were always or ever that easy), this is particularly unlikely for those in the WRAG of ESA. Such individuals have been assessed as having limited capability to work (something that politicians and much of the media often seem to forget) and may well face various personal and structural barriers to entering paid employment.
Disability Rights UK have previously called for the exemptions to the cap to be extended to include those in the WRAG of ESA, a call which is more pressing than ever given its forthcoming reduction. If Green really wants to lay claim to being a compassionate conservative, he should undertake an urgent review of the benefit cap’s reduction. Its whole logic is doubtful but its application to many disabled people is simply unjustifiable. Green must see this and act to reform it, and he must do so now.