Determined to conclude a career-defining budget speech with aplomb, George Osborne announced that his budget would fulfil a Conservative aspiration that has existed since Victorian times: the creation of a “one nation” UK.   Yet it was easy to feel that one group had been quietly left out of the new “nation” that the Chancellor wants to build: disabled people.  Financial support for many was reduced; key issues that affect many disabled people, such as accessible housing and care provision, were barely mentioned.   Furthermore, there was a worrying lack of information about the help that disabled people would receive to join the hallowed group that Mr Osborne stated would particularly benefit from his ‘one nation’ budget: “working people.”

Welfare changes

Aspire was relieved to learn that the Conservatives have kept their promise not to tax disability-related benefits (PIP and DLA.)  The recent report by the Extra Costs Commission provides a timely reminder of how expensive disability can be, and DLA and PIP can go some way to meeting those costs. 

However, Aspire was disappointed to see that new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who are placed Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) will now receive the same level of payment as those on Jobseekers’ Allowance.  Many people who sustain spinal cord injuries (SCI) will be impacted by this change and their income will be 30% lower than they would have received under the current system.  Moreover, the logic behind the change is unclear.  In his speech, the Chancellor highlighted that:

“The number of JSA claimants has fallen by 700,000 since 2010, whilst the number of incapacity benefits claimants has fallen by just 90,000. This is despite 61% of claimants in the ESA WRAG benefit saying they want to work.”

Why Mr Osborne believes that simply cutting disabled people’s benefits will help them find and retain work is unclear.  He himself emphasises by his use of the “61%” statistic that incentives are not the chief problem.  His lament during the speech that claimants in the WRAG receive “nothing like the support” that people on JSA receive is suggestive that there will be an increase in the training and assistance that people in the WRAG receive.  However, the details are as yet unclear. 

Aspire will campaign to ensure that any extra employment services which are provided are appropriately specialised.  Broad brush programmes such as the Work Programme have so far been significantly less successful for disabled jobseekers than for non-disabled ones.  If the Chancellor is serious about reforming the WRAG, there is the potential for the 61% to achieve greater independence through employment, an aim that Aspire supports.  However, unless new activities to help people into work are sufficiently effective to achieve that aim, this change represents nothing but a cut to disabled people’s income.

Hardly an approach to make them feel part of “one nation.”

Care and housing

A plan to create new housing was conspicuously absent from the budget speech; a shock after so much of the general election campaign focused on the housing shortage.  At Aspire, we know how much resolving the UK’s huge lack of accessible housing could help people with Spinal Cord Injury with every aspect of their lives, from looking after their health to obtaining a job – the Government’s failure to acknowledge this is deeply frustrating.  Our frustration is amplified by the fact that improving the housing situation could also help the Government achieve many of its key aims, such as halving the disability employment gap or saving money for the NHS.  During a debate on the Independent Living Fund, the Minister for Disabled People stated he had been meeting with his colleagues in the Departments of Health and Communities  about providing disabled people with all the support they needed – could he not do so on the housing issue?

Plans to improve and resource care provision – again crucial to people with SCI maintaining their health and obtaining employment – was also absent from the budget speech. 

A budget which does not address two key concerns that disabled people have is not a budget for the whole nation.

What would Walter think?

“One nation” Toryism was born from a Victorian novel, Sybil, written by a Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (pictured).  In Sybil, a working class radical, Walter Gerard, berates an aristocrat, arguing that Britain is made up of:

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones.”

Since then, it has been the aim of many Conservatives that Britain will be a unified nation.  In particular, they have sought to close the gap between rich and poor.   But what would Walter think of this budget?  He would have welcomed Conservatives recognition of the extra costs of disability.  But he might have had concerns, as Aspire does, that cutting benefits and failing to address the key concerns of disabled people belies the assertion of a “one nation” budget.