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What Employment and Support Allowance cuts mean for disabled people

ESA is a lifeline for those unable to work. But those claiming it are now treated as if they are healthy job seekers. 

Those who do not work due to illness or disability are simply riding a wave of inflated benefits. Or so this government would have you believe - and that wave is about to come crashing down, leaving many recipients marooned without the support they need.

Cuts to Employment Support Allowance that came into effect on Monday reduced weekly payments from £102.15 to £73.10 (£57.90 if you’re 24 or under) - the rate of standard job seeker’s allowance, in a bid to encourage more people back into work.

However, research conducted by the Disability Benefits Consortium - a national coalition of over 70 charities - suggests the move will have the opposite effect, with 45 per cent of those surveyed believing the loss of income would likely mean a later return to work.

“The ESA was designed to replace your income when you’re too sick to work,” says Phil Reynolds, policy co-chairman of the DBC. “But the government feels having a higher rate than job seeker’s allowance is a disincentive, and so believe equalising it is the right way to incentivise people to work.

“However, there is no evidence to suggest taking money from disabled people will do anything to get them back into work." A survey of ESA claimants conducted by the DBC found 70 per cent believed the cut could cause their health to suffer, and a third said they were already struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes.   

Although those currently eligible for cold weather payments will still receive the same benefits - and there will be no change to payments for existing recipients of ESA - the figures should already be cause for action before even considering the thousands who, if struck by illness or disability from this week onwards, will suffer further financial hardship.

Two-thirds of those surveyed believe they would struggle to pay their bills and their health would suffer if their payments were cut by £30 per week, while of those who have already had their ESA withdrawn or reduced under the scheme, 24 per cent could no longer afford their weekly food shop.

Why the changes? 

The Welfare Reform and Work Act impact assessment for the benefit cap, published in August, stated overarching changes would “promote even greater fairness between those on out of work benefits and tax payers [sic] in employment (who largely support the current benefit cap), whist [sic] providing support to the most vulnerable.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Our reforms are ensuring we have a welfare system that offers work for those who can, help for those who could, and care for those who can’t.

“The ESA work-related activity component was originally introduced to incentivise people to find work but is not working – just one per cent of people leave the benefit every month.

“New ESA claimants who are placed in the Work Related Activity Group will instead receive a Personal Support Package with practical help to move closer to the labour market and re-enter the workforce when they are ready.”

However, the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which scrutinised the policy, found that the evidence that lower benefits would encourage people back into work was “ambiguous at best”. It’s easy to see why. The DWP has cited two main studies in its evidence. The first, a 2005 OECD report, which states “financial incentives to work can be improved by either cutting welfare benefit levels, or introducing in-work benefits while leaving benefit levels unchanged”, but does not specifically consider those suffering illness or disability.

The second, a 2010 paper by Barr et al. does report that “eight out of 11 studies reported that benefit levels had a significant negative association with employment” - the take-away line for government. However, it also states “there was no clear evidence from these countries that changes in the eligibility requirements of disability benefits had a measurable impact on employment”.

Crucially, it concludes "whilst changing benefit levels may affect the employment of some claimants at the margins, the consequences of this, in terms of loss of income, affects all claimants." If benefit cuts leave "more vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems on reduced benefits, the negative consequences may outweigh the gains made in increasing employment".

Worse off than healthy claimants

The Select Committee’s report also noted that given those on ESA are likely to have higher living costs associated with their conditions, they will ultimately be left with less disposable income than JSA claimants, even though they are also not expected to find work as quickly as their JSA counterparts, and so will require the benefit for longer.

More poignant of course is the impact assessment’s following point, that the reform will “further reduce benefit expenditure and continue to help tackle the financial deficit”. As highlighted by Julia Rampen earlier this week, these latest benefit cuts are largely the brainchild of former chancellor George Osborne, whose commitment to austerity was unwavering during his time in government.

The ESA cuts, which arrive the same week as reductions to child and working tax credits, housing benefit, incapacity benefits, universal credit (that some ESA applicants will now receive) and bereavement support payments, are expected to save the Treasury £1bn by 2020-21, and come into effect at the same time as changes to Personal Independence Payment criteria that are expected to save £3.7bn. Many disabled people rely on both.

A green paper published in October put forth a bold ambition by the government to reduce unemployment among those suffering from long-term illness and disability.

It stated:

“For many people, a period of ill health, or a condition that gets worse, can cause huge difficulties. For those in work, but who are just managing, it can lead to them losing their job and then struggling to get back into work. Unable to support themselves and their family, and without the positive psychological and social support that comes from being in work, their wellbeing can decline and their health can worsen. The impact of this downward spiral is felt not just by each person affected and their families, but also by employers who lose valuable skills and health services that bear additional costs. There is a lack of practical support to help people stay connected to work and get back to work.

“This has to change.”

It has changed. Not for the better.

 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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