Employment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 3:48 pm, 6th June 2019

My Lords, I too applaud the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, for moving the Motion for debate today. The employment statistics are indeed impressive and we are all aware that, in general, employment improves the well-being of us all. But in 21st-century Britain, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has already indicated, for too many people employment does not equate to well-being—quite the opposite.

I have worked closely with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, over the years, through his welfare reforms. I hope that the noble Lord agrees that, with all the good that has happened, there is a bleak underside to the welfare reforms we have seen unfolding. As pointed out in the 2018 statement of Professor Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works. That is a remarkable figure. Some 2.8 million people in poverty are in families where all the adults work full-time—I could go on. Low wages, insecure jobs and zero-hours contracts mean that, even with unemployment at a record low, which we should celebrate, 14 million people in this country live in poverty.

The Government have introduced swingeing cuts to tax credits for working people—driven by the Treasury, I emphasise, and not by the noble Lord, Lord Freud. I cannot resist pointing out that the US banks created the crisis of 2008, but our poor and in particular our disabled people are expected to pay the debt. I would be grateful if the Minister assured that a serious review, both of working people’s poverty and the plight of disabled people who are denied benefits, will be or is being undertaken.

I will reflect on two aspects of the human cost of driving up employment: growing levels of debt; and the harassment of disabled people to drive them into employment, with devastating consequences. I use the word “drive” intentionally. As employment has increased, so has the level of debt and stress. For example, the website of StepChange, a debt charity, received no fewer than 2.5 million visits in 2018. Those 2.5 million people are in debt and need help. A striking fact is that reduced income in work is as important a factor to people seeking help with debt as unemployment is. Too many people are in insecure, spasmodic or very low-paid jobs—employment that does not enable people even to feed themselves. Too many employed people need access to food banks.

However, the swingeing cuts to the welfare budget over recent years have ensured that the loss of a job, however poor that job is, is often financially catastrophic. The rules applied to universal credit applicants have greatly exacerbated the suffering of those involved. The complexity of the application process, the delays before benefit is paid, the sanctions—often based on errors that are then very difficult to rectify—and the sharp drop in the level of benefits for many have massively increased debt levels and caused extreme distress and fear, affecting many millions of households in the UK today.

I turn to the policy of driving disabled people into employment. One of the ugliest features of the welfare system, in my view, is the work capability assessment, a tool designed to put pressure on sick and disabled people to motivate them—that is the term used by officials—into employment. I make it clear that I am a strong supporter of help for disabled people in overcoming the real hurdles they face in finding and keeping a job. One of the most important objectives for any disabled person is to work, if they can reasonably do so. However, it is quite another matter for the state to seek to make the benefit claims process so difficult and unpleasant, and the level of benefits so low, that a sick or disabled person who is unable to work is literally traumatised, may die or attempt suicide in desperation. That is what I am referring to.

Mo Stewart, in her book, Cash Not Care: The Planned Demolition of the UK Welfare State, demonstrates brilliantly the horrors of the WCA as experienced by sick and disabled people. At the heart of the cruelty is the biopsychosocial model of assessing a person’s capability to work, whereby medical diagnoses are ignored and replaced by simplistic psychological and physical capacity measures, applied too often by non-medical staff to very vulnerable disabled claimants. I recently visited a wonderful service for people with severe brain injuries and was appalled to meet people in wheelchairs with multiple disabilities, both mental and physical, caused by their brain injury, who had no prospect whatever of recovery and yet had just been recalled for another work capability assessment. It is hard to describe the distress involved, knowing how arbitrary the system is.

The architect of the scheme, Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, admitted in 2012 that it is “unsatisfactory” and,

“no longer addresses the real needs of disabled people”.

However, it remains in place. Few people know that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after a work capability assessment declared them fit for work. A further 7,200 claimants died after being assessed as well enough to prepare to get back to work. According to staggering NHS statistics for 2014, almost 50% of sick and disabled claimants of employment and support allowance had attempted suicide while claiming that benefit. I find the figure hard to believe, but it was published in NHS statistics. These deaths and near-deaths are the tip of the iceberg of huge and pervasive suffering generated by work capability assessment processes and other tools of successive Governments determined to boost employment. Will the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to reform the work capability assessment?