Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Disability benefit reforms fail the liberal test

'The worst thing that can happen to one in the relations between man and man', said Rousseau, 'is to find onself living at the mercy of another.'

According to some philosophers, freedom is centrally about not living at the mercy of another.
It is about not being subject to another's power to intervene in one's life at their discretion. Freedom is, in this sense, independence - the power to refuse dependency on others and their uncertain goodwill.

Liberalism in Britain has historically seen it as a core objective of the welfare state to help secure independence in this sense.

Yet two reforms to disability benefits announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review last week fail this liberal test and fail it badly.

Two key benefits for the disabled are Employment Support Allowance (ESA) which is intended as an income replacement benefit for those out of work due to disability; and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) which is intended to help with the extra living expenses of disability (e.g., having to buy equipment to help with mobility).

ESA was introduced by Labour as part of its reforms to incapacity benefit. It involves a Work Capability Assessment which is now widely regarded as grossly insensitive to the needs of people with disabilities and health problems. The assessment regime is under review. Given the Coalition's clear intention to make big savings on the welfare budget, including from disability benefits, one might wonder whether significant change is likely. We'll see. You never know.

Meantime, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Coalition has announced two changes to the above benefits.

First, for those on contributory ESA judged to be work-capable, the benefit will henceforth be means-tested after one year. So if you are on ESA, and you are judged work-capable, as the large majority of disabled people now are, then you will lose the benefit after a year if you have any significant savings or a partner with enough earnings.

Second, the Coalition has announced that it will cut the mobility component of DLA for those in residential care.

Both reforms clearly fail the liberal test of protecting freedom as independence.

The DLA reform, which has provoked moving testimony from disabled blogger BendyGirl, takes away the resources that the disabled in residential care need to have independent mobility - to be able to do things like go to the shops without relying entirely on the good will of others to make this possible. It really does put the disabled people affected entirely 'at the mercy' of carers for getting around.

The ESA reform, too, undermines independence. It does this, for example, by forcing disabled individuals who can't find a job to rely even more on their partner for financial support. What's wrong with that? Well, if one accepts that financial dependency on an individual gives power to that individual, power over those who are dependent on them, there is a lot that's wrong about that. The reform once again directly creates the kind of vulnerability that, on a liberal view, is hostile to freedom.

I can see one kind of Liberal Democrat response coming. Yes, its bad. We disagree with it. But this is a Coalition. We have to put up with all kinds of things we disagree with.

Maybe so. But there is a need to be honest about just how deep the contradiction with liberal principle is - an honesty that is unlikely to be forthcoming if one follows Nick Clegg's attempt to redefine the liberal value of independence in terms of the Thatcherite value of 'self-reliance'.

And in the case of the DLA reform, which saves very little money, I suspect I am not alone in being struck by just how little has been gained in return for the repudiation of liberal principle.


Mrs said...

"And in the case of the DLA reform, which saves very little money, I suspect I am not alone in being struck by just how little has been gained in return for the repudiation of liberal principle."

...so if it saved more it would be ok?

Stuart White said...

Mrs: '...so if it saved more it would be ok?'

No. That's not what my closing remark is intended to imply, and its' not what I think.

The point I was trying to make is that the Lib Dem participants in the budget discussions seemed to have held their principles very lightly to agree to such an appalling benefit cut even when it achieves such a small saving.

My own view is that all the proposed cuts to welfare are unjust and could be avoided.