THE Government's far-reaching reforms of the benefits system were always going to be problematic because they seek to balance two competing aims.
First, to support those who are unable to work and secondly, to encourage – or force – those who can work but won't back into employment. Both aims are legitimate but they create a kind of tension at the heart of the system, with the most vulnerable suffering the consequences.
Today, The Herald publishes more evidence of those consequences with Hardest Hit, a coalition of disabled people's charities laying out what they see as the disturbing effects the Government's reforms are having on ordinary people. The charities have spoken to thousands of disabled people and more than two-thirds of them say their health has worsened as a result of the stress caused by the assessments for Employment and Support Allowance, or ESA. In addition, welfare advisors told the charities many disabled people are being left without adequate support.
What the charities are saying will not be a surprise to anyone who has been watching the Government's reforms unfold. For months now, organisations that work with the disabled and vulnerable have been warning that thousands of people across Scotland are going to be worse off and the humanitarian fall-out of that is clear. Some people, for example, will be forced into the hardest decisions – decisions like, should I buy food or pay for heating? This should never be a consequence of a welfare system – even one that seeks to be fair but firm.
We also know that the assessments for ESA are simply not working as they should: cancer patients in the middle of treatment are being deemed fit to work, for example, and medical evidence is being improperly disregarded. The fact that those who appeal against the assessments are having a high rate of success is proof of that and demonstrates the process is deeply flawed.
The solution proposed by the Hardest Hit coalition is that the Government should rule out any further spending cuts, but the true emphasis should be on ensuring the cuts are focused in the right place and balanced against their impact on vulnerable individuals and on society. It is unacceptable to expect people to live in isolation and poverty because they have a disability but snatching benefits away from the disabled will not only make individual lives more difficult, there is likely to be an extra cost elsewhere for GPs, hospitals and councils who have to pick up the burden of care. The Government may achieve the savings they want in the short term by targeting the disabled, but in the long term the cost could be just as great, for the Government, for the taxpayer but, most importantly, for vulnerable people living on the edge of poverty.
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