Welfare Reform Redux

Susan Pashkoff rages against the continual demonisation of sick and disabled people


The Tory government will be out of power from the next election. Until then, they are using their majority in Parliament to pass as much right-wing and divisive legislation as possible. But what will the Labour Party do with these pieces of legislation when they come to office?

The Tories  have clear targets reflecting their political and ideological position: marginalised groups. This is not new. Since the Tories came to power, migrants and asylum seekers , disabled people and women on benefits have been on the frontline.  Legislation has been passed which vilifies these marginalised groups, blaming them for economic stagnation and economic crises, accusing them for living off the generosity of taxpayers and not contributing to society. 

Some of this legislation is in violation of International Human Rights law –  which is British law. This is  part of the right-wing Tory agenda.The legislation declaring that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers is a good example.The House of Lords  attempted to water down this vicious piece of legislation but finally gave up on April 22 so it will become law. 

The Labour Party in power will probably repeal this legislation  –  but because it is such a ridiculous waste of money and will have  limited impact, rather than because it’s  racist. So, while they will overturn the Rwanda plan, they will do it for the wrong reasons. The problems arise from right-wing Tory ideology both on migration and public sector spending.

The Labour Party says it will do various things in office, but as we get closer to the general election they row back. Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is pushing a supply side approach to economic stagnation, so  Labour refuses to commit to wealth taxes, adding additional income tax bands or financial transactions taxes.So when Labour says  they will overturn Tory legislation on anti-trade union laws, welfare reform, anti-protest bills and policing bills, this might be abandoned if the measures would require additional spending.

Reeves accepts the budget debt limits set by Jeremy Hunt. She would not overturn the cut to National Insurance. Further Hunt wants to eliminate National Insurance completely and all that it funds.This is not popular with older Tories worried about the impact on their children and grandchildren. Labour seems determined to go after these votes, which means that they would need to move even further to the right. 

What would voting for such a right-wing neoliberal Labour Party achieve? True, they are not as bad as the Tories, many of whom are on the far-right, but  Labour has already placed significant limits on what they will  do, despite  more than a decade of continuous austerity. Moreover, many shadow ministers, including Liz Kendal, Shadow Secretary of Works and Pensions, accept Tory ideology on benefits and the welfare state. This means that there will be further pressure not to undo Tory attacks.

Attacks on benefits

I have written previously about attacks on unemployed people, disabled people, women doing care work for disabled family members, and mothers with young children that are hallmarks of Tory Party policy. Austerity has been used to undermine subsistence incomes in Britain by attacking public sector wages, imposing privatisation and maintaining high rates of profit and revenue for the wealthiest. This has led to massive income and wealth inequality in Britain, undermining not only those that are dependent on benefits but the wage incomes of the whole working class. 

The use of zero-hour contracts  has hit younger workers in particular as minimum wage rates are lower for ages 18-20 at £8.20/hour, while those aged 21-24 have only recently become entitled to the adult rate of £11.45.  This leads to jobs and workers, especially those in so-called  “low-skilled” employment, becoming more precarious. 

Zero-hour contracts means you do not have a work schedule in advance, or know how many hours you will work. Those on zero-hour contracts are members of the reserve army of labour, brought into work when needed by employers, but with limited protection and work benefits. Labour  have promised to eliminate this in their New Deal for Working People. They have also pledged to get rid of fire and rehire, which permits sacking workers in an existing job. Their decent wages and working conditions are ended and they are  rehired as gig workers, stripping away those benefits which unions successfully fought for. 

The Tories created Universal Credit (UC) to replace legacy benefits. Benefits are restricted to those looking for work, otherwise sanctions are applied, meaning your already inadequate income is stopped. Turning down a job or being late for a Job Centre interview at a Job Centre  can lead to benefits being stopped for a specified period  – or permanently. A 6-week waiting period is applied from application to payment of benefits, during which repayable loans are offered. UC ensures that eligibility depends on facts; rather than entitlement on the basis of need.

Historical diversion

This discussion on eligibility versus entitlement first appears in discussions on poverty in  Jeremy Bentham’s writings  in 1796, in reference to the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendments  providing out-door relief for impoverished people, the Speenhamland System. This was tied to family size and the price of grain, and was predominantly aimed at agricultural labourers seasonally out of work. Bentham advanced arguments that were incorporated in the 1834 Poor Law Reform.  He argued that some unable to work would be eligible for relief, but others had to demonstrate their entitlement. In addition,a further recommendation of his, included in the law , was that relief would require admission to the workhouse, with families separated.  Bentham advocated the principle of less eligibility where the amount of relief was lower than their ability to earn. He also promoted the medicalisation of disability, where entitlement to relief would depend on both impairment and severity, with a chart discussing eligibility. This developed into the institutionalisation of disabled people.

Unlike earlier economists who recognised that the level of employment depended on available capital and development of the domestic economy, Bentham provided for full employment, since he believed that unimpaired people out of work were lazy shirkers. He dismissed the idea that the economic system was unable to create full employment. So poverty was due to  individual irresponsibility, and he argued a lack of wealth could never be eradicated because it is the condition of the majority. The contribution of those without wealth was their ability to labour.

In Bentham’s “Essay on the Poor Laws” (1796), he writes that forced labour must be run by the government, not charities or churches, who must limit what people can earn. These ideas were later incorporated into his text “Observations on the Poor Bill”,  attacking the principles of the 1795-7 Poor Law amendments:

“To a person…under total and absolute want of ability…to work, relief must be administered…, since otherwise he must perish.

To a person of adequate ability,…no relief, but on condition of his performing work …yield a return in value, adequate to the relief.

His reasoning included a regard to justice – to avoid “an unnecessary invasion of property […] by taxes”, and to economy, avoiding men obtaining …”the same subsistence without working…”. And to welfare, “…. idleness in one who has no property, …indigence and wretchedness”.

Writing on the Poor Law, Volume I, “Essays on the Poor Laws: Essay II”, pp. 44-45, 1796, Oxford University Press.

Bentham did say that children and those with serious impairments should not be forced to work, however:

“A person deprived of all his limbs, or ..the use.. may still possess ability sufficient… so long as mental facilities… sight.. and voice are possessed by him with sufficient vigour.”

On children:

“brought up…at the public charge, the public may, …reap the utmost profit,… consistent  to the health and permanent welfare,.. and that, until the expiration of his minority”.

Tory Reform

The Tory government’s reform of welfare by Iain Duncan Smith intended to unlink benefit levels received from the level of need. Universal Credit limited the total annual amount you can get. It combined 6 different benefits previously available: housing benefit, child tax credit, child benefit, employment support benefits, disability benefits,.Bentham’s idea of less eligibility  under which the amount received had to be lower than earnings from paid work  for the Tories meant benefits must be lower than the minimum wage.  If adults in the family are out of work, the benefit cap introduced in 2013 limits the total you receive . The UC cap is lower than that of legacy benefits. 

Housing Benefit had been capped to force the poor out of wealthier areas. Lower benefit levels would force people into work, they believed, reviving a very old policy, and deliberately decreasing workers’ income below the subsistence wage to prop up the rate of profits. This policy has been kept in place for over a decade. Overall incomes for the unemployed working-class were maintained artificially low until the cost-of-living crisis with inflation of energy, heating and food prices made this impossible. Increases however were  lower than  inflation due to a 3 months lag between inflation figures and benefits.

Then there was the two-child maximum benefit cap in 2017, providing child support and child-tax credits only to 2 children in a family, unless the 3rd child is part of a multiple birth or a child born of rape. This Malthusian policy, a return to the 18th and 19th centuries,was introduced to stop women from having more children. They perpetrated  the entirely ridiculous accusation that women have children to get more benefits. Both the benefit cap and the two-child maximum benefit have led to a major increase in absolute and relative poverty of children and their families.

According to the Resolution Foundation:

 “The two-child limit results in low-income families losing around £3,200 a year for any third or subsequent child. And when 100,000s of families lose out on £1,000s of benefit income a year, poverty rates soar. In 2013-14, 34 per cent of children in larger families were in poverty, but this is projected to rise to 51 per cent in 2028-29….the proportion of two-child families in poverty is projected to remain constant over the same 15-year period, at around 25 per cent. ….in the year 2021-22, 75% of larger families were in material deprivation, compared to 34% with fewer than three children, and 16% of larger families were in food insecurity, compared to 7% of the smaller families.

Abolishing the two-child limit would cost £2.5 billion in 2024-25, rising to £3.6 billion in 2024-25. These costs are low compared to the harm done, and scrapping the two-child, ….if abolished today, 490,000 children would be lifted out of poverty.”

The total cost would be £3 billion – peanuts, easily covered through the introduction of a wealth tax. Many Labour Party members, economic foundations, and anti-poverty campaigners have fought against the 2-child policy since it was introduced; Labour MPs have opposed the policy, including those in the current shadow cabinet, and have promised to overturn it. Overturning the cap and linking benefit levels  with need would  address both absolute and relative poverty. The removal of these caps would have an immediate effect of removing families out of poverty – yet Labour is now refusing to overturn them.

The introduction of workfare to force claimants into “training” was not successful; various versions were introduced in 2012, earlier ones were rarely used, and many corporations in the programme abandoned it due to pressure from the Boycott Workfare Campaign. Tory attempts with welfare to work programmes have not been successful even when unemployment was high, which is not the current situation. Nonetheless, this has been used to sanction people that were unable to find work after training.

There are different types of benefits for people that are off work due to sickness, part of National Insurance Contributions paid by both employers and employees.  There are also benefits for long-term impairment for disabled people which you are “entitled to” irrespective of working “if sufficiently disabled  and determined at work capability assessments”. Understanding the social model of disability was never a strength of this government. The types and amounts of benefits and the determination of eligibility were subsequently changed. 

Image: Byzantine K

Under Tony Blair, assessments of those newly applying for disability benefits were done to determine whether you were able to work and “deserving of disability benefits”. The Tories extended these to those already on benefits due to long-term impairments. Assessments, not done by medical professionals, ascertained whether you were “lazy and slacking off” or  “not contributing to society”. These terms were used to vilify disabled people and those out of work. Blaming the victims of capitalism rather than taking responsibility for the impact of their policies is a common practice of mainstream politicians.

They changed disability benefits and later  Employment and Support Allowance to Jobseeker’s Allowance with work-related activity groups (WRAG) for those who could be removed from benefits once they had been trained and deemed “able to work”; WRAG has been phased out and the introduction of JSA lowered the  total amount available for disabled people. 

Changes were introduced to benefits that covered the additional costs of being disabled. They eliminated the Independent Living Fund in 2015, which has been declared illegal, but no replacement was introduced. New  people cannot apply to receive it. So, the Disability Living Allowance, that was part of legacy benefits preceding Universal Credit, was eliminated together with one of the categories relating to the extent of mobility. This new system and assessment is called Personal Independence Payment. Many disabled people did not transfer onto Universal Credit as the amount received was lower than on legacy benefits due to certain categories being withdrawn. Moreover, those people still on legacy benefits, predominantly disabled, during Covid were not given the £20 uplift that was to ensure that those that lost jobs due to the pandemic, and were not eligible for furlough, would be able to survive. 

The government has again begun forcing disabled people onto Universal Credit, temporarily suspended during the pandemic. There have been 2 court cases already when disabled people had to fight to maintain £180/month of higher levels of support, who had received severe disability premium and enhanced disability premium under legacy benefits no longer  existing in Universal Credit. There is now a 3rd court case, where a disabled benefit claimant has lost nearly £400/month transitioning from legacy benefits to Universal Credit. This forced migration to UC will clearly impact disabled people who had been able to retain legacy benefits.

Recently, as discussed here, the UK government blamed disabled people, carers, family providers of support and assistance, as well as mothers with young children, for the current economic crisis and British economic stagnation. This is nothing new, Theresa May’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, did the same in 2017. But Sunak went a bit further and threatened to force them into work either at home, without provision of personal assistants or necessary technology, or in a workplace where a responsible employer would make reasonable adjustments.

On 5 September 2023, the government announced a consultation and new policies to get disabled people and those with long term health conditions into work:

“Earlier this year, Government confirmed investment worth £2 billion to support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions into work, while delivering on the Prime Minister’s priority to grow the economy. Today’s consultation will go further to facilitate appropriate work opportunities for people, by reviewing a range of categories in the assessment – representing its first significant update since 2011.”

The categories are designed to determine what activity people can do and its effect on ability to work, which then informs assessment decisions, identifying additional financial support people  through  benefits, and whether claimants need to prepare themselves for work.

The proposals include updating the categories for mobility and social interaction, reflecting improved employer support in recent years for flexible and home working – and minimising the risk of these issues causing problems for workers.

Rishi Sunak’s statement  conveys deep cynicism. One wonders if somewhere there exists a document used to justify the 1834 poor law reform still hanging around, or perhaps something that long ago referred to Jeremy Bentham, now lost in the annals of time, from which they got these ideas. Sunak said:

“Work transforms lives – providing not just greater financial security, but also providing purpose that has the power to benefit individuals, their families, and their communities.

That’s why we’re doing everything we can to help more people thrive in work – by reflecting the complexity of people’s health needs, helping them take advantage of modern working environments, and connecting them to the best support available.

The steps we’re taking today will ensure no one is held back from reaching their full potential through work, which is key to ensuring our economy is growing and fit for the future.”

On 20 November 2023, Sunak again raised getting disabled people into work, talking about this level of unemployment  being a “national scandal”. These changes appeared in the 2023 Autumn Statement on November 22 under the “New Chance to Work” proposals, alongside the Back to Work Plans for disabled people:

“New flexibilities in the labour market mean that more people can undertake some form of tailored and personalised work-related activity, with the right support. For example, 40% of people reported working from home at some point in the previous week in Winter 2023, compared with just 12% throughout 2019. And of around 8 million jobs advertised online between April and October 2023, over 20% were either remote or flexible, compared to less than 4% over the same time period in 2016.

That’s why we are reforming the Work Capability Assessment to make it fit for the modern world of work.”

In the first major review of the Work Capability Assessment  since 2011, they have erased the ‘mobilising’ part of the assessment which placed people into a group without work preparation, meaning many will be deemed able to undertake some work or work preparation, given the right support.

Amendments to regulations on mental health issues that indicate ‘substantial risk’ if required to undertake work preparation, will reintroduce the original intention that this applies only in exceptional circumstances, “whilst still protecting and safeguarding those deemed vulnerable”.

Reducing the points awarded for some of the Limited Capability for Work involving ‘getting about’ descriptors,to reflect the ‘increase in flexible and home working opportunities now available.’

This would result in about 370,000 people by 2028/29  receiving no future support from DWP as they would end up in the Limited Capability for work-related activity (LCWRA) group, but would now be offered personalised support to improve their work prospects!


Many disabled people will require personal assistants as well as broadband and computers to work from home. If they are working at a business, such reasonable adjustments will mean that it costs employers more to hire disabled people than those without impairments. Given low wages, even with the increase in the minimum wage, the race to the bottom  means employers hire workers on zero hours contracts and use agency workers on low wages. Why would they spend more to hire disabled people, requiring support and assistance, and hence costing more? This is basic economics. Employers treat workers as a cost, not an asset. The government is as usual inconsistent, as usual. Do they think that capitalists will pay more to hire disabled workers out of a sense of what … justice or fairness … or something equally absurd?

It is also probably illegal to force disabled people to work, as it is a violation of international humanitarian law about forced labour (yes, that is still British law). There are human rights lawyers in the UK examining this law.

ILO Convention number 29 on forced labour, specifically article 11 of the forced labour convention says:

“Only adult able-bodied males who are of an apparent age of not less than 18 and not more than 45 years may be called upon for forced or compulsory labour. Except in respect of the kinds of labour provided for in article 10 of this Convention, the following limitations and conditions shall apply:”

Furthermore, there are additional issues impacting disabled people where they live; most local councils have increased care charges for support and assistance that people are entitled to;  meaning many disabled people are paying three times, through national insurance contributions,  through local council tax and through paying for care charges to their local councils.

Attacks on family carers

On  7 April, The Guardian reported on family carers being taken into court for overpayments of carers’ allowance and being forced to repay the money. People earn £81.90 weekly for taking care of disabled family members for a notional 35 hour week – often much longer in practice. Those with other part-time jobs are only allowed to earn £151 a week at these jobs. Carers face prosecution and imprisonment if they don’t pay the money back.  A follow-up article on 19 April reports  many of these family carers,  mainly women – who may also  be disabled – being forced to repay the entire carers’ allowance they received. This is despite the actual discrepancies often being very small. 

This is pure punishment of those that have ceased work to take care of family members with long-term impairments and disabilities, which increased during  the height of the Covid pandemic. Long Covid is keeping people out of work. The  quantity and quality of social support and assistance needed because the Tory government  destroyed social support and assistance, refusing to recognise that care work is skilled labour, means that people have stayed out of work to care for disabled family members, This results in neat labour market segmentation of traditional women’s labour.

The latest rubbish

On 19 April Rishi Sunak gave  a speech on welfare reform which  makes my point about Benthamite ideology. According to The Independent, the £100 million Work and Health programme established by the Tories to get disabled people into work in England and Wales will be discontinued this autumn.  Sunak has launched a major attack against disabled people, targeting the large increase in people signed off from work, as well as partners leaving work to take care of them, due to the Covid pandemic. Apparently General Practitioners are writing too many sick notes, and that we have a “sick-note culture” which is the path to permanently leaving employment. Their solution is to  hand the responsibility to other specialist work and health professionals to determine whether you are fit for work or not. It is bad enough that routinely disabled people facing work capability assessment often have their doctors’ detailed information disregarded, but now they will be ignored.

According to Sunak, and for that matter Labour’s Liz Kendall, young people  diagnosed with mental health problems like depression and anxiety  are also a problem. They are supposedly not getting the ‘benefits’ of work, ignoring  the fact that it is mostly women over 50  with Long Covid that are out of work.  So, what are they planning to do to help those with mental health impairments? The backlog to access talk-therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is ridiculous as there are not the professionals to provide  this. Do they think that if they wave a magic wand, doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists will mysteriously appear? So, they want to change work capability assessments, whose determinations are routinely overturned anyway by non-qualified people  not known to you. Work capability assessments will be retained for those that have less severe impairments. 

A government press release states:

“…The Prime Minister announced a review of the fit note system to stop people being written off as “not fit for work” by default and instead design a new system where each fit note conversation focuses on what people can do with the right support in place, rather than what they can’t do.

As part of this, the government will consider shifting the responsibility for issuing the fit note away from already stretched GPs, towards specialist work and health professionals who have the dedicated time and expertise to provide an objective assessment of someone’s ability to work and the tailored support they may need.”

But as Thorston Bell of the Resolution Foundation notes:

“Reforming sick notes is sensible BUT it’s got almost nothing to do with the rise in people who are on disability benefits or out of the labour market entirely due to ill health. Remember a sick-note signs you off temporarily when you HAVE a job – it doesn’t sign you on to benefits”

Sick notes are not relevant for those on long-term disability benefits;  only for  those that are ill for a short time. They relate to those taking time off from work temporarily, not for long-term disabilities covered by National Insurance contributions.  So, what is Sunak attacking here? 

It is the fault of the Tories that the NHS is underfunded and it takes ages to visit a GP. Their economic policies are responsible for the stagnant economy. Neither they – or for that matter Rachel Reeves – realise that supply side economics don’t create economic growth, just further income and wealth disparities. At least Reeves is talking about eliminating fire and rehire and zero hours contracts –  but will they continue this or will they abandon these policies to win over right-wing Tories voters? Stay tuned…

Economic stagnation in Britain is a result of the Tories’ neoliberal economic policies and Brexit hasn’t helped.They don’t understand that it is not just people out of work that create stagnation so they deny the existence of Long Covid and  blame those with Covid instead.. Their policies have driven wages down so low that they are forcing women into work who are caring for disabled family members and children, and even still cannot afford childcare. They increased the entitlement to childcare, but not the number of places available which are privately provided, … and they  ignore that working just to pay for childcare is not a good use of time either for women, nor for the economy as a whole.

Increases in productivity require capital investment. Low wages mean that investment is not being undertaken by employers as it is so cheap to hire labour. Zero-hour contracts mean that skills do not grow over time which require long-term work to develop agility, which would cut down on production time ,and then impact on productivity. 

Just hiring more workers doesn’t necessarily lead to growth… A  lot more is needed than this, like good working contracts, long-term employment and better wages… but Adam Smith knew this in 1776…

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Susan Pashkoff is a revolutionary Marxist, Economist, political activist and blogger. She writes on issues around US and British politics and economics, gender and women's oppression, and disability.

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