By Alaina Heath, Synergi Project Co-ordinator

In January 2024, the National Survivor User Network (NSUN), Synergi’s host, held a monthly Network Meeting focussed on the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) proposed changes under its new ‘Back to Work Plan’, and what this means for Disabled people. At the meeting, we heard from speakers Zita Holbourne from Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC), one of the 2023 Synergi grantees, and Rick Burgess from Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP). Facilitated by NSUN’s Policy Officer Kieran Lewis and Senior Communities and Grants Manager Ruairi White, the discussion explored the impact that the DWP’s proposed changes would have on our communities and the rights of claimants, as well as ways to challenge and resist harmful reforms. The blog will summarise this informative and insightful discussion. 

The Social Model of Disability 

It is important to highlight the Social Model of Disability as a key foundation for the discussion. As opposed to the Medical Model of Disability, which frames someone’s impairments or differences as the cause of their disability, the social model focuses on how people are disabled by societal barriers, structures and attitudes. Taking this approach, it is clear that the DWP’s proposed cuts would contribute to the disablement of people by creating further barriers to the access of much needed, life-sustaining funds.  

The speakers 

Rick and Zita both work with their communities to resist harmful systems and structures such as the proposed ‘Back to Work Plan’. As Rick explained, the GMCDP is led by and for Disabled people who work according to the social model of disability justice. He emphasised that, within their social definition of disablement, they very much include mental ill-health, trauma and distress.  

As Chair and Co-founder of BARAC, Zita campaigns for equality and human rights. Back in 2010, BARAC formed to campaign primarily against the adverse and disproportionate impacts of austerity and cuts on Black communities through an intersectional lens. Over the years their remit has broadened to include refugee and migrant rights, and the wider discrimination and injustice faced by Black communities. Zita is also a trade unionist, multidisciplinary artist and writer.  

What is the DWP’s proposed ‘Back to Work Plan’? 

The meeting started off with a useful contextualization from Kieran about the Government’s proposed changes. In November 2023, the DWP put forward their intention to increase benefit sanctions through the Government’s New Back to Work Plan, which claims it will help people with long-term health conditions and disabilities to ‘stay in work’. However, as Kieran explained, the proposed reforms are harmful rather than helpful, designed to force Disabled people into work through punitive actions such as rejecting benefits claims if claimants don’t accept work placements. This is yet again another move by the Government to weaponize work and productivity against Disabled people.  

The proposed measures would mean that there would be more evidence demanded, harsher sanctions and further surveillance in order for Disabled people to access benefits. People on the universal credit standard allowance would receive ambiguous, regular ‘support’ to work and their claim might be stopped if they do not accept mandatory work placements. Those who have had open-ended sanctions for more than six months would also have their claim stopped, which would mean losing access to free prescriptions, legal aid and dental care. The Government would also track claimants’ attendance at job fairs and interviews organised by job centres and pass this information on to work coaches. Kieran also mentioned the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill currently being debated in the House of Lords, which would oblige banks to provide benefit claimants’ account information to the DWP to check for ‘fraud and error’. The substantial risk safeguard for people on universal credit and employment support allowance is also under threat. Currently, people are treated as having limited capacity for work if their disability means that engaging in work-related activity would cause substantial risk to their physical or mental health. The DWP are now suggesting that they would expect more evidence of acute mental ill-health in order to treat people as having limited capacity for work related activity, which would make it much more likely that people experiencing mental ill-health would see their benefits becoming dependent on mandatory tasks that can be extremely distressing and exacerbate ill-health of all kinds. 

How will this impact our communities?  

Although these sanctions have not been confirmed and enacted, Rick highlighted how the Government’s November announcement and its media coverage are already having negative mental and emotional impacts on Disabled people. The proposal has instilled anxiety and terror in those who would be impacted, as well as perpetuating discriminatory narratives about Disabled people in relation to work and productivity – a form of ‘state sponsored terrorism’ to fear monger and ‘divide and rule’ by blaming Disabled people for the state of the country. When it comes to the actual rolling out of these cuts, this will make the process of applying for benefits even more invasive and difficult, as well as the reviewing processes for those who are already receiving them.  

Zita emphasized how, after over a decade of austerity, a global pandemic and deepening racism, navigating the labour market and employment is already often traumatising and disabling for many people of Black, Brown and Migrant backgrounds. ‘There is a gender pay gap and ethnicity pay gap that have widened over the last decade despite targets to close those gaps because everything’s gotten worse and has been amplified by austerity, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.’ 

Black people are far more likely to be in precarious and dangerous work, frontline jobs, overworked and underpaid, and face racist harassment and bullying in the workplace, all of which can cause disabilities and exacerbate existing disabilities. ‘As a trade unionist, I know that a lot of people become Disabled at work, both physically and mentally. I end up dealing with a lot of cases for Black Disabled people because of this double discrimination they are facing.’  

One of the key issues, Zita explained, is that there is not enough effort to keep people in work if they want to stay in work, in terms of reasonable adjustments and addressing the discrimination that exists.  

‘In fact, what you get is denial of that discrimination in the first place and people are treated like they are the problem, they’re making trouble, they’re making these things up, or things are swept under the carpet. That in turn impacts on mental health.’ 

More recently, Zita has witnessed multiple instances where Black Disabled people with Long Covid have lost their jobs because they had not been given appropriate reasonable adjustments to allow them to stay in work – ‘adjustments that employers could put in place but refuse to because they see it as extra work and don’t want to deal with somebody they see as ‘a problem’ in the workplace.’ The trauma caused by these experiences of employers, and resulting unemployment makes getting back into the workplace even more distressing and inaccessible. This is especially traumatic for people of Migrant backgrounds who, depending on their immigration status, may have no access to public funds and benefits when they become unemployed.  

‘Whilst we are here to talk about the benefits system, we must also include those who don’t even have access to the benefits system in the first place.’  

Zita went on to highlight the inaccessibility of navigating benefits systems due to language barriers as well as the wariness of authority that comes with the lived experience of racism in this country. ‘All of this creates far more anxiety, worry and concern having to navigate new systems and engage with the benefits process.’ Zita also mentioned that, on top of this, austerity and cuts have hit specialist services in local communities which support people when navigating benefits and employment systems by providing advocacy and language translation services.  

The illusion of accessibility 

As outlined by Kieran, a justification behind the Governments ‘Back to Work Plan’ is the illusion that remote jobs are more available, accessible and work to remove all barriers that Disabled and marginalised people face. In actuality, as explained by Rick, there has not been a sudden significant increase in remote jobs and there have been no significant changes or improvements to make the labour environment one where people feel safe to disclose impairments and conditions. Moreover, ‘to make the idea that sitting at a computer is easy and therefore you can work is nonsensical.’ This illusion of accessible work is used to justify another step towards dismantling social security. ‘It sounds roughly ‘plausible’ but if you dig into it, it isn’t at all.’ Rick also mentioned the Government’s lack of competency when it comes to digital inclusion, with no mention of it or funding for it.  

‘If the Government wants people to work from home they need to put work into digital inclusion, they need to put work into the infrastructure and they need to actually have a ministry that’s in charge of it. At the moment, none of those things are the case.’  

We are not seeing movements towards creating flexible and agile work environments, but rather movements away from this. So much so that, as mentioned by both Rick and Zita, there is now a huge push to force people back into offices and reduce remote working.  

Zita emphasised that many jobs cannot be done remotely. As highlighted by the pandemic, there is an overrepresentation of Black, Brown and Migrant workers doing front line, service-based jobs who have to physically attend work. For those with mobility issues, the physical nature of the jobs available in itself is a significant barrier. Furthermore, Black, Brown and Migrant workers are more likely to be working for outsourced organisations such as agencies who have been known to exploit workers. Zita also challenged the discriminatory assumption that because you are Disabled you are okay with lone working even though this can be incredibly isolating, completely dismissing those whose preference may be to work amongst others.  

‘Again, this is restricting and limiting the availability and range of work that a Disabled person can do while making assumptions about what they want. It is othering, grouping Disabled people together as one set of people with one type of work they should do, and not taking into account the broad range of disabilities or the reasonable adjustments that may be needed for any individual.’  

The weaponization of work and productivity  

As a preface to this topic, Kieran told us that, in the text of the Government’s Autumn Statement, the word ‘productivity’ comes up 44 times, highlighting the fixation on our capacity to contribute to the capitalist means of production.  

As stated by Rick, ‘It has long been the case under capitalism that, unless you’re in the ruling class, your value as a human being has been only your labour value.’ He explained how our conception of disability derives from capitalism; developing because of the industrial revolution and resulting ideas of productivity.  

‘We’re not really that advanced from that very initial prejudiced stage of dividing people into the 2 classes: the ‘owners’ and the ‘workers’, with the workers only being of value as long as they can work.’  

The Government’s anti-rights agenda and policy attempts like the ‘Back to Work Plan’ continue to reinforce that ‘we are only worth as much as we can earn for other people’. In defiance of this notion, Rick stressed the importance of recognising that ‘we are all human beings, and we all have innate worth and rights.’  

In challenging conceptions of productivity Zita asked ‘how do you measure what productivity is?’ To suggest that because people can’t work or work differently they are unproductive is discriminatory and can isolate people further, making them even more ill – another layer of discrimination. 

‘There is too much of a rigid, set system and perception of what the ‘right way’ to work is and what is expected of people. If we were more creative around how people can work, and people had access to jobs that played to their strengths and skills in cultural environments that suited their needs, then you would have the ‘productivity’ they [the Government] talk about because you are creating an environment where people can thrive. If you eradicated disability discrimination, race discrimination and all other forms of discrimination, people would be more ‘productive’ because they’d be safe, supported, nurtured and happy at work. Half the time people are not happy at work. They go to work because they are forced to so they can pay the bills and put food on the table.’  

As a trade unionist, Zita has worked with many people who have or are being bullied, harassed and policed into conforming to fake norms in the workplace. ‘People are forced to put on a facade to navigate the cultural space, be accepted or just to get through the day and get work done. Workplaces are not nurturing, supportive environments most of the time, so the whole culture of the labour market and employment needs to change.’  

We were also reminded of our right to claim benefits. ‘People have worked for that money so that when people can’t work there is a system in place. We pay taxes so that when we have periods in our life when we can’t work, whether it’s to raise children, because of a disability, or whatever the reason, there is a safeguard in place. That’s the whole point of the benefits system.’  


Whilst the importance of academic research to affect change was mentioned, so were the limitations of this and the problematic nature of work being done that is not led by Disabled people. As explained by Rick: 

‘The think-tank world is still very resistant to working to co-production with Disabled and grassroots groups. Too often they are releasing reports written by non-Disabled people who are not a part of the community and that will continue to come up with the wrong solutions.’  

Furthermore, Rick highlighted the widespread fixation on the ‘health benefits’ of employment, with large sums of money being granted to organisations for getting Disabled people into the workplace.  

‘I think we need to protect the concept that if you are unable to work, you do deserve a good income and a secure life, because that is being taken away. It is very risky just to let funders dictate the activities that our organisations get involved in.’  

He urged us to question the sincerity of policies and schemes to get Disabled people into the workplace for their ‘wellbeing’.  ‘The Government have progressively deregulated protections and strangled trade union power, so they are not sincere about making workplaces healthy. When they make interventions in social security that is not about getting more people into work, that is about reducing the treasury spend.’  

Concerns around the function of job roles such as work coaches and disability advisors were mentioned. Such positions receive and require limited training, are not led by people with lived experience, and, for many, are an extension of state surveillance to force Disabled people into work. Rick also mentioned how healthcare professionals have been recruited into the Governments ‘Back to Work’ coercion agenda for a long time. ‘Professional bodies have not really stood up about it. Some of the better services have taken on responsibility for welfare rights, which they all need to be doing.’ Our welfare rights are not separable from our health.  

The ‘lip service’ of workplace mental health initiatives, such as wellbeing workshops and sessions, was also raised.  Zita stressed that this is ‘not enough if you don’t address the underlying core things that create a harmful working environment and culture.’  

What can we do?  

The need for intersectional collective action was felt strongly in this meeting, as through this we can build broad alliances and cross-movement solidarity. This is key to our Supporting Movement Spaces work at Synergi.  

‘We really need more collective action because, very often we are having to fight individual cases on all of these issues and that’s really difficult and draining. All of the pressure is on the individual and those around them to navigate the system for their case, and while we might win cases it doesn’t necessarily bring an outcome for everybody. I think we need to counter the narrative that’s out there to try and stop that ‘divide and rule’.’ 

Some powerful examples of collective action across groups of people and organisations were mentioned. Rick spoke of the recent Ticket Offices Campaign which brought together groups of Disabled people, elderly people, commuters and trade unions and was successful in stopping plans to close ticket offices in train stations. ‘There is reason to hope, because we did win massively on that.’  

Zita emphasised the importance of workplaces being trade-unionised and encouraged us to join trade unions so that we can be a part of a collective voice and collective action. ‘Unions are only as strong as the members in them.’ She went on to explain Collective Bargaining: this refers to the negotiations, proposals and challenges Trade Unions make on behalf of workers so that we are not divided, othered and forced to go through the harmful process of individual representation. Trade Unions and collective organising can also be spaces of powerful resistance against workers being placed into problematic roles that they are not qualified to do, such as the work coaches and disability advisors mentioned earlier. For example, Zita mentioned the collective legal action taken by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) with grassroots and human rights organisations against the Government’s proposal to make workers push boats of people seeking refuge back into the water. ‘That’s an example of where a union can say ‘no, my members are not paid to risk people’s lives.’ 

There are also things that we can do outside of the workplace, in our communities. As an artist, writer and poet, Zita facilitates creative writing and visual art workshops. ‘Cuts to arts have a huge impact as creativity is so important for our mental health. Budgets are cut, and things like this are not provided for free or at low cost for local communities, and that has a knock-on impact.’ Zita campaigns for free access to arts and culture for all. ‘These are things that can alleviate stress and anxiety and be used in a therapeutic way.’ 

‘When we look at trauma and how trauma is perceived in terms of mental health, we must look at community and collective trauma – the trauma of the Windrush generation, the trauma of people fleeing persecution, conflict and climate change.’ In her work, Zita looks at how human rights legislation could potentially be used to challenge the way people are treated when their mental health is impacted due to trauma. ‘As well as looking at equality legislation, I think it is worth exploring that.’  


I left the Network Meeting feeling really grateful to all those involved for creating a space of shared learning, empowerment and solidarity, and excited to share this further though the blog. Attendees described the discussion as really interesting, insightful and brilliantly facilitated.  

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