The government still doesn’t know what its talking about. But this time it’s almost seven years on from when it gained power, and its politicians no longer have the right to plead ignorance. They do not have the right to remain ignorant on matters of great importance over which they hold the power.
A spokesperson for the government said that mental illness is not a disability. Leaving aside his personal knowledge of mental illness – which appears to be restricted to non-disabling depression or anxiety – he should have legal knowledge of the definition of disability. The legal definition of disability as per the Equality Act 2010 includes mental illness where it is so severe as to cause substantial long-term difficulty with normal activities of day-to-day life. Thus, mentally ill people can be disabled.
This is something the government alleged it recognised, soon after it came into power, when it wanted to replace the existing extra-costs disability benefit. It claimed that one of the reasons it wanted a new benefit to be brought in was so that people who could not leave their house without assistance because of mental illness could get some financial help towards their costs. Now the government has discovered that mentally ill people are, as it said it wanted, getting help towards their mobility costs – and it says this is wrong and should not happen.
So physically disabled people had to have their financial support restricted (even though they need it) so that mentally ill people could get more support (as they need) without having to source the money through tax (from people who have more than they need). Now that mentally ill people are getting the support they need, it is to be taken from them, because apparently this wasn’t the point of scrapping the relatively-functional Disability Living Allowance and replacing it with Personal Independence Payment. Of course, taking support away from mentally ill people fits with the narrative of cuts for the sake of saving rich people’s tax, but it really doesn’t fit with the narrative of taking money from physically disabled people in order to help mentally ill people. Now we’re all being taken from, and it’s hard to see why or how this is supposed to help us.
The government has a similar ignorance in its approach to income replacement benefits for sick and disabled people. Towards the end of last year it published a Green Paper in which it was supposed to discuss how to support and provide for people with chronic incapacitating illness or work-limiting disability. In the entire paper it managed to avoid all mention of chronic illness, and barely mentioned disability. It claimed that work is all-but universally benign and never – let alone frequently – toxic. And it strongly implied that the only thing wrong with chronically ill people is that their family, their caregivers, their doctors, their governmental assessment of capacity and their own minds and bodies are all (incorrectly) telling them that they are unable to work.
I wish I could be more positive about the government. I would love to say that they are well meaning and that they do care, but they’re just misguided. Maybe that is the case. Maybe they think what they are doing is genuinely good, and that the research papers linking the cuts in support that they have made to increasing illness, death and suicide are not relevant to the cuts in support that they have made.
I would love to be able to say that there are some positive things in what the government plans. That cutting sick people’s income to 37% of what they need to live is not a problem. That then taking away the money they need to cover the extra costs caused by being ill is fine. That then making people attend the JobCentre, with its attendant travel costs that may or may not be reimbursed, is not going to cause any issues. That placing more conditions on sick people and stopping their income for four weeks if they fail is absolutely okay. That reducing the amount of Housing Benefit people get so that it is less than their rent, and reducing the amount of Council Tax Support that they get so that it is less than their Council Tax, really won’t cause any difficulties.
I would love to be able to say that none of this is a problem, because the employment support that the government is going to give people is so stupendous that however sick or disabled they are, they’re going to be in work within a very short period of time. But when all the evidence says that sick people need good healthcare combined with very good specialist employment support if even a third are to get work within two years, making people see a JobCentre Work Coach whilst continuing to ignore the NHS crisis is really not going to achieve what is needed. Without Job Brokers, social care and dramatically increased and sped-up Access to Care disabled people who can work aren’t going to get into work either.
The government says a lot about responsibility. Responsibility of individuals, of family, of carers, of charities, of employers and of medics. But not of itself. And not of rich people towards those less well off.