Personal Independence Payment and the necropower of austerity


by Rebecca Louise Porter, Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds


Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is one of a number widely condemned welfare reforms, implemented in 2012 in the UK. A United Nations investigation in 2017 stated these changes evidenced ‘grave and systematic violations’ against disabled people’s human rights. This is denied by the government. This study will argue that PIP is an example of necropolitics in the UK. Through welfare changes, the government controls who lives, dies, or exists as ‘living dead’: not physically dead, but unable to live full lives. Hence, under the veil of austerity, PIP is a tool used to control and keep disabled people under surveillance, as an ‘Othered’ group.

The Welfare State and Personal Independence Payments

Under capitalism, society operates on a work/needs based system (Stone, 1984). This means those who cannot work must pass a test to validate their needs (the validating device)(Stone, 1984). Disabled people that approach this needs-based system are viewed with suspicion, as they are assumed to be trying to escape the work-based system if they try to claim welfare. Disability in this regard is a problematic category as ‘no single condition of disability is universally recognised’ (Stone, 1984, p.22). 

Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and PIP are both designed to cover the extra costs of living if you belong to a certain group e.g. disability, young children (child benefit) (Burchardt, 1999). For example, Scope (2019) defines these extra costs as the additional amount of money a disabled person spends in order to have the same standard of living as a non-disabled person. On average disabled adults have £583 of additional costs, and these extra costs are equal to just over half of their total income (Scope, 2019). As a result, being categorised as eligible to receive welfare support can be the difference between being in poverty or not (Roulstone and Prideaux, 2012).  Following changes made under the Coalition government, the current incarnation of the extra cost benefit, for those aged between 16-65, is PIP, while DLA is only available to those under the age of 16 .

Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was introduced as a part of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act.  It is designed to cover the extra costs of being a disabled person. Whilst DLA had three separate pay rates dependent upon the level of support needed, PIP has only two. It operates on a point based system, with thresholds for lower or higher rates based upon the assessed impacts of the impairment. Moreover, PIP assessments take place between every 9 months to 7 years, with no lifetime award system. Again, this is a considerable change from DLA, where recipients could be eligible for a lifetime award. Unsurprisingly, PIP has been widely condemned, including a United Nations investigation that described it as a “human catastrophe” (Kentish, 2017, no pagination; see also UN, 2017).

The Necropower of Austerity Britain

The welfare reforms in the UK (Welfare Reform Act, 2012) have plunged people into poverty in the name of austerity (Ryan, 2019) with little examination of the human cost of these changes (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017). When considering extra costs, over half of disabled people are thought to be living below the poverty line, due to the changes to welfare and social care (Ryan, 2019). Ultimately, not having access to the additional benefit leads to a lower total weekly income and standard of living (Alcock, 2006). It is to this point, that the concept of necropower is useful for making sense of the cost to human life. 

Necropower refers to the level of power employed by the state to create different forms of death. Austerity measures and the denial of extra cost benefits for disabled people, is necropower in action. To exemplify, according to DWP figures, over 7,990 people died within six months of having their PIP claim rejected (DWP, 2019). Scope states that around 72% of PIP appeals are won by claimants (Scope, 2018). 17,000 people have died within the last five years, while waiting for their PIP claim to go through (DWP, 2019). This means potentially thousands of people died before having access to the money they needed to keep them out of poverty. It can therefore be theorised that disabled people are some of austerity’s ‘living dead’. This marks a shift from biopolitical (Foucault, 1975) forms of governance (Mbembe, 2003), in which disabled people are viewed as a drain on the system (Ryan, 2019). 

Case studies

To illustrate how that disabled people are ‘necropolitically’ impacted by austerity and welfare reform, I have selected two case studies from the recent publication of disabled columnist, Frances  Ryan (2019).

Bessie’s story 

Bessie is 51. She had no choice but to wash her clothing by hand because her washing machine had broken down and she was unable to pay to fix it. When Ryan visited her a couple of years later, she had to ration her heating and lighting to around four pounds a week. She should have specialist meals, but the loss of her lifetime DLA award means she cannot afford it.

Susan’s story (Ryan, 2019)

Susan, who has MS, could not afford heating and went to bed with her dog at 7pm for warmth. She has lost four kilos (8.8 lbs) in five years because she requires a specialist diet but cannot afford it. She eats porridge instead for every meal. Sometimes she skips meals to pay for her incontinence pads.


Evident in the stories of Bessie and Susan, changes to the welfare system have had devastating impacts on the lives of some disabled people. As I will continue to explore throughout my PhD project, these changes have caused disabled people to become ‘austerity’s living dead.’ Many have been left impoverished and destitute by welfare reform. Poverty remains rife in the United Kingdom several years on from the introduction of austerity measures. Since 2010 austerity has  created an environment for necropower to thrive.

Reference List

Alcock. P. (2006) Understanding Poverty. London:Palgrave McMillian.

Burchardt, T. (2000) Enduring Economic Exclusion: Disabled People, Income and Work. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Department For Work and Pensions (DfE) (2019) Personal Independence Payment written question. Available from:

Equality and Human Rights Commission (2017) Being disabled in Britain: A journey less equal. [online]. [20/11/2018]. Available from:

Foucault, M. (1975) Discipline and Punish. London: Penguin.

Kentish, B. (2017) Government cuts have caused ‘human catastrophe’ for disabled, UN committee says: Ministers are accused of ‘totally neglecting’ people with disabilities. Available from:

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropoltics. Public Culture 15(1), 11-40.

Roulstone, A. and Prideaux, S. (2012) Understanding Disability Policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ryan. F. (2019) Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People. London: Verso.

Scope (2019) Extra Costs Report. Available from:

Stone. D. (1984) The Disabled State. Baskingstoke: MacMillian.

United Nations (2017) Concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Available from:

Welfare Reform Act 2012, London: HMSO

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