Friday, 12 February 2016

An Open Letter to Lord Freud

Dear Lord Freud

I write to you with regards to your recent comments on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, specifically the proposed cuts to payments to those in the ESA WRAG category.

You are quoted as saying that the reform is needed as only 1% of people in that category moved off the benefit each month. You also said,

“As a government, we want to ensure that we spend money responsibly in a way that improves individuals life chances and helps them achieve their ambitions, rather than paying for a lifetime wasted on benefits, “

I find this statement somewhat at odds with your support to the welfare cut.
It is well documented and observed that those people looking for work under WRAG are often still in poor health, following long periods of illness or injury. Additionally some of them may have been out of work for some time or may not be able to return to their previous profession.
Responsible spending and support for people in this group would be the provission of support to allow them to re-enter employment in a suitable manner. People with chronic illness and disability may not be able to work full time or in a usual Monday to Friday routine. However, part time and flexible work is often lower paid and would not guarantee enough salary to cover bills. There is currently a gap in government support that means that people who are physically unable to work full time, can not afford to work full time. Additional support for people in this situation would help people into jobs and and aid stimulation of the economy.

Additionally, some people may not be able to work regular working hours, needing neither work from home options or freelance arrangements. Freelance work is often the only work people with chronic illness are able to undertake, however this is not a guaranteed wage and may not equal a full time wage. There is currently little support for people who work on contract or freelance and that help that is available is restricted and difficult to apply for. Providing additional support for people in this situation would help people find their own work and aid stimulation of the economy.

Many people who had to leave work due to health issues find that their health limitations restrict them from going back in to the same type of work, for example physically taxing jobs; jobs requiring a degree of mobility; high intensity jobs and so on. Furthermore, as employees are generally in favour of recent experience those who have been out of work for some time are at a disadvantage. Currently there is very little provision for retraining, higher education, skill development or apprenticeships, all of which would help to bridge that gap. Most of the available services only relate to basic skills and “CV writing” which are of little actual benefit in the job market and for the majority of people on ESA. Providing additional funding for training and education would give people a better chance at finding a job. Providing additional support for people in this situation would increase employability and stimulate the economy.

Another challenge faced is that many people who have reached the point of being deemed fit to work have done so through implementing various regimen to support their health and recovery. This can include long term regular physiotherapy not available through the limited NHS provisions; regular massage therapy for pain management; the use of specialist facilities like hydrotherapy pools; the use of specialist equipment like TENS machines or mobility aids; even the use of a cleaning or meal service so that they can focus on work. All of these things cost money which a cut in payments would heavily restrict. Without those services people may not be able to afford to stay “work fit”. They also need to be confident that any new job will pay enough to cover these services and that it fits around the schedule needed to maintain their health (for example the local hydrotherapy pool is only open during common working hours). Support should be maintained and improved so that people in this situation can be confident they are fit for work and are employable and can thus contribute to the economy.

A reduction in benefits is not offering support to people on ESA, but is in fact taking support away.
It is a fallacy to believe that people who are placed in to the WRAG category are 100% fit and able to find employment the very next day. The Work Related Activity Group explicitly states that people in this category are working toward being fit and healthy for work. Finding a job, for anybody, takes time and a particular set of circumstances. The additional difficulties faced by those who are disabled, chronically ill or who have been out of work for some time makes this task even more difficult. A reduced income adds to these difficulties rather than takes them away. A reduction in support will not fix barrier to employment, make freelance, contract or part time work suddenly cost effective. It will into make jobs with flexible working more abundant nor will it refresh and renew people's skills or make the right job matches suddenly appear.
Taking any old job due to desperation or poverty regardless of their skills or health status is simply not sustainable and does not benefit the workforce in any meaningful long term, or even mid-term, manner. If a person takes on an unsuitable job due to desperation they are likely to find themselves unable to work in the future as their health deteriorates once more. This may cut the number on benefits temporarily but it is not actually a solution to unemployment, or job shortages.

Responsible spending of money to improve a persons life and chances of employability should involve actual spending. It should also recognise that a persons inability to work full time or return to their area of training makes them invaluable to the workforce, economy and our country. A thriving economy recognises the differing capabilities of its population and works with that to maximise people's potential. A thriving economy recognises that one size does not fit all when it comes to employment.

One final and crucial point. I want to address the final part of your statement:
“ rather than paying for a lifetime wasted on benefits, “.
This implies that you believe that a life not in work is a life wasted. Do you truly believe, can you stand proud in front of a nation of people and honestly and without shame or doubt say that a person who is not working is a waste of a person?
A person who can not work and who most live on the goodness of the state should never be considered a waste. They provide love, friendship and care to their friends and family. They engage in media and entertainment sharing ideas, opinions and preferences which help to shape everything from TV listings to politics. They may volunteer on a casual basis, providing support and help to those organisations that could not exist without them. They may have hobbies, that fit around their disabilities that contribute to the art and culture of this country. A person who does not work is not without value. A persons employment status is only one of the many and varied ways we can judge our own self worth and value to others and to society.
A life is not wasted on benefits, it is lived as best as it can be, just like any other individual who may be employed or not. That they may be limited due to their health and disability does not mean that they are limited in value. To state otherwise is a callous dismissal of a vast part of the population.

I, and many other like me, would very much like to know why your statement is so at odds with your support of a cut to benefits. I would very much like to know why you support a policy that keeps people from working rather than helping people back in to work. I want to know that you, and our government values its citizens, all of of it's citizens, regardless of their ability to work and that you will not punish those you deem as a waste.

You do have a responsibility to improve the benefits and welfare system in this country, but that responsibility is not to government accountants and bean counters but to the citizens themselves who need the support of their government in order to live a healthy and valued life.

Your Sincerely

Sophie Tynan
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