The focus of today’s (22 November) Autumn Statement was very much growth, with no less than 110 measures announced – though the Chancellor jokingly reassured the Commons that he wasn’t going to go through every single one.
A key theme was capitalising on better-than-expected economic figures, with National Insurance reductions, measures to tackle barriers to investment and support self-employed people SMEs, and support for poorer households, including an uplift in Universal Credit.
At the core of the growth plan, though, was work. Or rather, ‘rewarding work’ and eliminating what the Government sees as a waste of the potential in terms of those out of work due to illness and disability. The Chancellor described the plans as “a combination of carrot and stick”.
The Government acknowledged the rise in people out of work due to long-term sickness since the pandemic, and made a commitment to increasing access to talking therapies for mental health conditions, a major driver of work absence.
Unfortunately, there was perhaps a little more stick than carrot. The Autumn Statement outlined a somewhat heavy-handed approach to people on out-of-work benefits, including the unwelcome return of unpaid work placements for claimants out of work for long periods, the renewed threat of sanctions, and citing increased home-working as a reason more people with long-term health conditions and disabilities could get off benefits and into jobs.
These measures don’t take into account the reality for disabled people who claim benefits and are not working. Many disabled people who want to work struggle to find a job that meets their needs.
In this context, suggesting that disabled people should either work from home or risk losing their benefits is unrealistic. Home working is simply not possible or practical in every role, and even upcoming legislation is still not flexible enough to meet the needs of many disabled workers. It remains true that, for some people with disabilities and long-term conditions, work is not the right option – it isn’t possible, safe or healthy.
Making work a realistic option for more disabled people calls for actions beyond a strict line on out of work benefits – including better access to tailored employment support, a better funded Access to Work scheme, and a properly resourced NHS which allows people to receive the treatment and procedures they need quickly and before their conditions worsen to the point they can no longer work.
Today’s Autumn Statement came a little too close for comfort to outdated narratives about disabled people who don’t work. We need to leave behind any notion that disabled people “don’t make the effort” to work – not just because it is inaccurate, but because it has real world consequences for those facing punitive sanctions and hardship as a result of benefits and work and society being approached with that way of thinking.
In short, we could have done with a bit more “carrot” and a bit less “stick” in the approach to people with disabilities and long-term conditions on out of work benefits.