The Guardian view on reforms to disability benefits: exacerbating misery

<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

One month before Jodey Whiting took her own life, she received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) saying her employment and support allowance was being stopped. Ms Whiting, who was disabled, had been told that she had to attend a work capability assessment. At the time of the assessment, she was being treated for pneumonia. Her death was a grim indictment of the disregard the social security system shows to vulnerable people. Ms Whiting’s mother has now won an appeal for a fresh inquest into her death. It was not an isolated case: in 2020 the National Audit Office found at least 69 suicides linked to the DWP’s handling of benefits claims.

The government’s recent pledge to scrap the work capability assessment was a welcome admission of the cruelty of this assessment. What’s required is an approach led by the needs of disabled people and those with health conditions. About 2.2m people in the UK with ill health say they would like to work. Under the current assessment system, they receive too little support, while those unable to work are often assessed incorrectly, and forced to either look for work or face benefit sanctions.

Yet the proposed alternative risks exacerbating misery. Currently, disability and incapacity benefits are assessed separately. From 2026, the widely loathed personal independence payment assessment will be used to determine whether disabled people and those with health conditions receive the new health component of universal credit. Incapacity benefits will be abolished, so people who are not disabled but can’t work, such as those with fluctuating illnesses, could lose up to £350 a month. Claimants will be assessed more regularly by a work coach, who will decide whether or not to apply sanctions. At the same time, sanctions will be ramped up. The risk is that this new system will give DWP work coaches greater power to determine the financial security of disabled people and those with health problems.

It is hardly surprising that disabled people have so little faith in the DWP. The department has long seemed more interested in rationing access to benefits than in supporting those who need them. The government has pledged to rebuild trust in the department, but this will be impossible so long as sanctions remain its favoured stick. A first step would be releasing the 2019 internal DWP study into the effects of sanctions. Its findings are likely to be damning: research has repeatedly shown that these punitive measures have no beneficial effects.

Sam Freedman recently wrote that sanctions are a type of “ordeal” – a deliberate attempt to create barriers to services. The UK’s social security system is replete with such ordeals, most of which are rolled out without any consultation. Part of this is due to what Mr Freedman called an “empathy gap”. Few politicians have experience of using welfare. It’s possible, if you have never claimed benefits, to assume that narrow incentives – such as the withdrawal of money – would be an effective tool. But sanctions have spread misery and fear. The welfare system should be based on supporting people, not punishing them. To start with, that means listening to those whose lives it affects.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at