Mary O’Hara: sick note ‘moral mission’ blames the weakest

Reforms to get disabled people off benefits have long failed to work – but the rhetoric is becoming harsher and implying that they are fleecing the system

Hand holding payment card

Over the past 14 years, successive Conservative governments have targeted benefits with cuts and changes – especially those for disabled people.

Many reforms have centred around getting people into work, even when that is untenable. Several have been criticised not only for failing to address needs due to (among other things) paltry levels of support and harsh sanctions but also for perpetuating the notion that those receiving state assistance are somehow fleecing the system.

Whole swathes of the population have been repeatedly labelled as lazy or dependent merely for seeking help. Often, dehumanising language, such as scrounger or skiver, has been deployed to justify cuts and reforms.

If there was ever any hope that this dangerous rhetoric would be consigned to history, a slew of recent government actions have put paid to that.

As the local elections loomed, ministers not only leaned into the same denigrating playbook – they ratcheted up the language.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak declared he was on a “moral mission” to address what he claimed was a “sick note culture”.

As Learning Disability England said: “The speech from the prime minister mixed up being unwell and being disabled, and it sounded like disabled people are being blamed for problems in society.”

The prime minister turned his rhetorical and policy guns on groups already struggling to access support (and not just from benefits but also from health and social care provision hit by years of cuts).

Sunak insinuated the benefits system was “medicalising the everyday challenges and anxieties of life”, even suggesting that many with mental health problems should not be in receipt of cash benefits but be offered treatment instead.

Proposed reforms announced in April by both Sunak and secretary of state for work and pensions Mel Stride left many reeling.

Cash versus vouchers

Mooted changes to personal independence payments, which help cover some of the additional costs of living with a disability, were met with excoriating criticism across the disability community.

One of the key plans for personal independence payments should the Conservatives form the next government was replacing cash benefits with vouchers.

This should set alarm bells ringing. Apart from possible bureaucratic overload, the concept has dehumanisation and humiliation built in. Just ask Americans.

Here in the US where I live – and based on the same idea of undeserving benefits spongers who can’t be trusted – the official method for decades to deliver “welfare” to people in poverty struggling to pay for food has been a form of vouchers.

The food stamps system (originally, recipients handed over physical stamps at shops in exchange for food) is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP).

Benefits are now delivered via a pre-loaded electronic benefit transfer card that mimics a debit card but it comes with restrictions on what recipients can purchase – something that both infantilises and further stigmatises.

Disabled Americans, like their British counterparts, are more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity than others. In the US, around 14 million disabled people rely on SNAP for help with purchasing basic food items.

Benefits are delivered via an electronic card but with restrictions on what recipients can buy with it – something that both infantilises and stigmatises

The name change to SNAP was triggered by the fact that food stamps were acknowledged to be stigmatising. However, changing name and voucher type does not override the core approach.

Such voucher mechanisms are the physical embodiment of state benefits as handouts – another demeaning term.

While they are undoubtedly a lifeline for many people, it has been well documented that, whether it’s handing over stamps or electronic benefit transfer cards, the system can trigger shame and stigma.

There should be no doubt that disability benefits must be drastically improved as well as made more generous. Vouchers, however, would be a lamentable reform in the wrong direction.