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16 September 2015

Nice try, David Cameron, but sickness can’t just be rebranded into unemployment

The government wants to pretend that disability and ill health don't exist, but it doesn't work. 

By Rosie Fletcher

How nice in this day and age to receive post. My frequent correspondent, the Department for Work and Pensions, recently dropped me a line to remind me what an economic burden my chronic illness is. This letter, an invitation to a little “work-focused interview” they were holding, contained the word “work” nine times, plus one “working” and one “employment”. References to health or disability: not one.

Said letter arrived the week after I had been summoned to a meeting at my local Jobcentre. I had been to these before. You hand over your bank statements and doctors’ notes to prove that you are not a Russian oligarch with Munchausen syndrome, and are thus entitled to your benefits. Photocopies are taken. They pat you on the head and send you away to await your fortnightly bank transfers. Relatively painless. 

So imagine my surprise, if you will, when the first question was asked and it was “Do you have your CV ready?”

I admitted that in my fourteen months of chasing a diagnosis, followed by five more making my slow, underfunded ascent up the waiting list for treatment, keeping my CV up to date had not been my top priority. I explained that my sainted mother, who frequently has to do my grocery shopping for me, had driven me there and was primed to drive me home again because I wouldn’t have the energy for a bus ride. That I had defrosted a microwave meal for that evening as I knew I would be beyond cooking. That I hadn’t done anything the previous day, nor would I the next, to make sure that I could come to this interview. That “getting dressed” for me usually means putting on a different pair of pyjamas. That I go to bed for an hour every morning and every afternoon to make it through the day. That my various doctors didn’t consider me able to work.

“So, do you think that you could work, maybe, sixteen hours a week?”

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And there lies the problem with the current benefits for sick and disabled people. There is no room for sickness or disability in them. The pernicious rebranding of Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance zeros in on claimants’ economic maladies at the expense of the medical ones that cause them.

If you are claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance, being “work-focused” is probably a good priority to have. But for those on Employment and Support Allowance, health and recovery has to come first and an ill-timed or ill-suited return to work only makes for a more ill-me.

It’s not often that I get to say that I agree with Ian Duncan Smith, but today is that day. “Growing evidence over the last decade has shown work can keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill.” He’s not wrong. However, ESA is not JSA, despite creeping towards it in terms of both acronyms and now the going weekly rate. By treating long-term illness with a short-term benefit, the DWP will drive ill people back into work before their time and, through cutting Access to Work, will only make it harder for them to return.

The DWP’s over-arching aim is to get people back into jobs as a means to cutting the welfare bill at all costs. Targets and threats and cuts may send get someone into work, but illness has no notion of sanctions or incentives. A job contract is not a prescription for a magic, all-healing pill. IDS can talk of supporting people in their returns to employment, but the system his department has created is anything but supportive. It is frightening, punitive and messy. If we really want to support people to get better both through work and in order to work, ESA should be in the care of the Department of Health, not Work and Pensions. Illness and disability are not matters of employment, but of health.

We have created a society where we can only see disabled people as non-functioning economic units, at the expense of their wellbeing. We cannot rename benefits to hide ill and disabled people. We cannot be rebranded into unsuitable work.

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