Image: K Mitch Hodge, Unsplash

Our benefit system is punishing and inadequate. It’s about to get worse.

Ahead of last week’s Autumn Statement, the Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said that ‘fairness has to be at the heart of our welfare system.’

The Chancellor subsequently announced cuts to support for those considered to have limited capacity to work, which will apply to new Universal Credit claimants from 2025. Jeremy Hunt also announced additional conditionality for claimants deemed ‘fit for work’ which could include withdrawal of free prescriptions, legal aid, bus passes and financial support with energy bills if they refuse to comply with conditions imposed on them. Some claimants face having their entire claim closed if they refuse to accept a mandatory work placement. 

This will deprive an estimated 370,000 people with disabilities or chronic health conditions of around £5,000 per year, and in return analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates the changes could see as few as 10,000 disabled people find a job. This doesn’t sound like the actions of a government focused on creating a fairer welfare system. 

The Chancellor tried to justify these changes by claiming that it is ‘wrong economically and wrong morally’ that over 100,000 people a year have to sign onto benefits because of sickness or disability with ‘no requirement to look for work.’ This type of rhetoric is a return to the nasty ‘shirkers vs strivers’ discourse which was so prevalent during the coalition years, except this time the disabled and neurodivergent are the government’s primary target. Guardian journalist Frances Ryan described the welfare changes as ‘performative cruelty’ and it will neither support disabled people into work nor will it save taxpayer money in the long run. The Chancellor also suggested that the increase in remote working since the pandemic will make it easier for those with disabilities and long term health conditions to find suitable job opportunities. The reality is quite different. OpenDemocracy only found 748 jobs (out of around 3600 total jobs, or just over one fifth) on the government’s own job vacancies website that mentioned remote working from “Disability Confident” employers. Research from mental health charity Mind found that 84% of recruiters in England and Wales have seen a drop in home-based roles since the pandemic. This highlights how ill-conceived the government’s plan is.

The Autumn Statement also failed to address the nearly 8 million people currently stuck on NHS waiting lists as well as the 1.2 million waiting for mental health treatment. This should be the government’s main priority, rather than threatening to take away benefits from some of the most vulnerable in our society.

The government should be listening to the disabled people, anti-poverty organisations and advice agencies who wrote to Mel Stride immediately after the Autumn Statement calling for the government to either reverse the eligibility changes or open up a new 12 week consultation and publish a full Equality Impact Assessment of the changes.          

We have already seen the disastrous impact of harsher systems of sanctions and conditionality in the form of the ‘two child limit’ and the benefit cap. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) found that the policy has pushed 1.1 million children into deeper poverty and that the policy doesn’t achieve its aim but just increases financial hardship.    

These welfare changes will only serve to worsen the already high levels of inequality in the UK. A strong, supportive and functioning welfare system can play a key role in reducing overall levels of inequality. Instead, our social security system is one of the least generous in the OECD with the unemployed receiving just 17% of their previous in-work income, compared to 90% that you would receive in Belgium. The JRF and Trussell Trust found that 90% of low income families receiving Universal Credit are going without the essentials for living. Earlier this year we co-produced a report on the inadequacy of the current social security system with CPAG through our APPG on Poverty, which found that ‘the low rates of social security are pushing people into poverty and driving destitution.’

This Autumn Statement reflects a concerning shift towards harsher welfare measures, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. The government’s prioritisation of the wealthy – 40% of the gains from the statement going to the richest fifth of the population – coupled with insufficient attention to pressing healthcare issues and the detrimental impact of existing welfare restrictions, underscores the need for an equitable approach to social security.

All of these negative impacts to society and hundreds of thousands of people will save the Treasury an estimated £1bn a year. But these moves will increase demand on other benefits, social care, social housing and the NHS; for this reasons, the ‘savings’ are dwarfed by the costs of inequality, which we recently calculated as at least £108bn every year in our ‘Cost of Inequality’ report.