Is Iain Duncan Smith preparing another attack on disabled people?

The Work and Pensions Secretary is planning to overhaul sickness benefit rules in a bid to get more people working.

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Without even going so far as to announce any new policies, Iain Duncan Smith has managed to strike fear into the hearts of society’s most vulnerable people. Again.

Without giving us any details, he has signalled his wish to shake up Employment and Support Allowance (the successor of the Incapacity Benefit) rules to put more people into work.

The Work and Pensions Secretary’s reason to rethink the benefit is that it is too “simplistic”.  What he sees as a “binary” system, whereby claimants are deemed either fit or unfit to work, should be overhauled to find a space in between, where sick and disabled people who claim ESA can do as little or as much work as they are able.

He said:

We need to look at the assessment we use for ESA – and I want to look at changing it so that it is better geared towards helping to get people prepared for and into what work they may be capable of, rather than parking them beyond work.

Although taking pains to point out that those too ill to work would be protected by the welfare state, the emphasis of his speech was on getting as many sick and disabled claimants into work as possible, stating:

Work can help keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill.

Even without concrete policies to analyse, the tone and direction here are telling: no state-funded support is sacred for those incapable of working.

There are currently two categories of those eligible for Employment and Support Allowance: the work-related activity group (in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser), and the support group (in which you do not have interviews and simply receive financial support).

It looks like the government is about to make it more difficult for claimants, all of whom must undergo the infamous work capability assessments, to be categorised as ESA support group claimants.

This is a worrying prospect for those unable to work who rely on the state for support, exacerbated by Duncan Smith’s track record on reforming disability benefits. Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance) and ESA have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Add to this the 30 per cent cut in the ESA work-related activity group benefit announced in the latest Budget, and the situation for disabled people in the UK looks even more precarious.

Duncan Smith’s intention to meddle further with the system suggests another hole is about to form in the so-called safety net.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.