Regardless of how many people it has or hasn’t killed, the UK government’s ‘fit to work’ test is clearly pretty nasty. Work Capability Assessments (WCA), as they are formally known, assess eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the main state benefit for those out of work through disability. The tactlessness with which these tests are applied has been described as a ‘culture of contempt’, with many applicants viewing the system as humiliating, frightening and damaging to their health.
It’s not just the implementation of the test that is odious, however, but the ideology underpinning it. One of the main reasons why the WCA is so stressful and emotionally charged is because of the high stakes involved. Those who are judged ‘fit to work’ are not only expected to undertake steps to improve their employability, but will also have their benefits cut from £102-109 to £73. This cut is because they move from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA).
However, this raises the question: why is ESA higher than JSA? Why do disabled unemployed people get more money from the government than the able-bodied? One obvious answer is that the costs of living with a disability are higher – for example, some people may need special equipment to help with their mobility. But there is another set of allowances designed to cover these costs – Personal Independence Payments. The more plausible answer why ESA is higher than JSA is because unemployed disabled people are seen as more ‘deserving’ (see page 31 of this report).
My inclination is to dispute the distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ unemployed matters at all. But even if you accept that such categories exist, I find it hard to understand a) that anyone believes they can sort one type from the other; b) thinking that the distinction maps onto the difference between disabled and able-bodied; or c) deciding that it is preferable to punish the innocent alongside the guilty, rather than letting some of the guilty go along with all the innocent.
For example, I fail to see the moral difference between a long-term unemployed person in any area with few vacancies and a person whose physical condition rules them out of most jobs. In both cases, the people are unemployed because of reasons beyond their control. It doesn’t matter how hard they try, what they do: they will never get a job. And yet the government clearly does see a difference. As the then employment Minister Chris Grayling has argued:
What I do not think we could possibly countenance is the situation where we are saying, ‘Because of circumstances in the labour market in your area, we will treat you differently
(I do not understand this. Why do people have such a mental block about the notion that the structurally unemployed can be deserving? If we believe the OBR, George Osborne put 60,000 people out of work by increasing the minimum wage. People who would have had a job but for the Chancellor. We won’t know who they are or where they are, but they will exist. And then they will be held responsible for their own unemployment.)
Sweden, by contrast, does accept the that the benefits system should acknowledge some non-medical constraints on work. Those who face difficulties finding a job because of a criminal record, or poor language skills are classified as having a ‘socio-medical disability’ – even if they have no medically diagnosed condition. This is an odd contortion – the Swedish government essentially has to pretend some long term unemployed are disabled to give them the support they need and deserved. And notice that this system still fails some people, like those whose unemployment is the result of the economic circumstances in their area.
A more satisfactory response is to acknowledge that you can’t tell whether a person’s unemployment is their own ‘fault’ by finding out whether they are disabled. And this means that both unemployment benefits – JSA and ESA should be set at the same amount (or more practically, merged). As it happens, the think tank Demos has suggested just such a reform.*
But if we’re worried about stressful and demeaning assessments of people’s deservingness, and want benefits to be a supportive safety net for those trying to get back to work (rather than a sharp stick to cajole them into employment), I’m not sure why we’re not just better off with a basic income.
* Alongside some other proposals about a more contributory benefits system that I wouldn’t endorse