‘Labour’s untenable position on social security and disability’ – Left Foot Forward

Left Foot Forward

Controversy rages about Labour’s developing position on social security reform as indicated in articles in the Daily Mail and The Guardian, writes Declan Gaffney

In the Mail, a source “close to Liam Byrne” says:

“Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, “Why should I vote Labour when they let this  happen?”.”

While in the Guardian, Byrne writes that William Beveridge:

“…never foresaw unearned support as desirable.”

For Sue Marsh, this is a betrayal of disabled claimants who are faced with massive cuts to sickness and disability benefits under the coalition’s welfare reforms.

She writes:

“You talk of “unearned support” Liam… We know about the hundreds of thousands terrified about what happens to those who CANNOT earn support.

“Until recently, we believed you gave it freely.”

Sunny Hundal, however, writes:

“Labour ministers have deliberately avoided mentioning disabled people in their rhetoric, and Liam Byrne explicitly attacks cuts to disability benefits in his article.

“They are not talking about disability benefits here.”

So who is right? Unfortunately, both are. Labour is trying to run with the hare (defending disabled claimants) while hunting with the hounds (attacking those who ‘spend a lifetime on benefits’). The problem is that these two groups are very hard to distinguish, because long-term benefit receipt is dominated by disability.

The evidence comes from the benefit system itself.

As Chart 1 shows, 57 per cent of all long-term working age benefit claims (running for five years or more) are among people entitled to Disability Living Allowance – the benefit which compensates people for additional care and mobility costs they face due to severe impairment.

A further 9% are for people receiving Carer’s Allowance because they are caring for someone receiving a disability benefit (DLA or Attendance Allowance). So two thirds of long-term benefit receipt is accounted for by identifiable disability.

But not all disabilities trigger entitlement to DLA, so the true figure for disability as a driver of long-term benefit receipt will be higher again.

Benefit claims running for five years or more

 So Sue is right to argue Labour’s ‘scrounger’ rhetoric is implicitly, albeit unintentionally, directed against disabled people. This is unavoidable as long as the issue is framed in terms of ‘a lifetime on benefits’. Attacking coalition cuts to disability benefits does little to counteract the framing of long-term benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’ when most are in fact disabled or caring for people with disabilities.

At the same time Sunny is right that Labour is making efforts to avoid disabled people being tarred with the ‘scrounger’ brush. But trying to balance the message in this way puts the opposition in a contradictory position.

Bear in mind that many severely disabling conditions are invisible to casual observers (and read Sue’s blog if you need to be convinced on this). So public perceptions are a poor guide to what is happening to benefit receipt.

The saloon-bar wisdom of statements like ‘decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off” needs to be confronted with the evidence the UK public grossly overestimates abuse of the benefit system and grossly underestimates the scale of disability in benefit caseloads.

One statistic serves to illustrate the point: there are a quarter of a million phone calls to DWP’s benefit fraud hotline annually. One per cent of these calls result in a sanction for benefit fraud. Put another way, 99% don’t. That means an awful lot of legitimate claimants are getting hauled over the coals every year because of snap judgments by ill-informed neighbours and acquaintances.

Now ask yourself: do we want opposition policy to be based on the perceptions of voters or on the evidence?

Would-be political tacticians will have no hesitation in opting for the former, but Labour will have to live with its chosen policy for the long-term. Policy based on ill-informed grievances will do nothing to address the real issues about social security, and, as evidence (pdf) from theUnited States suggests, may be doomed to political failure as well.

The main reason disability dominates long-term benefit receipt is that over the last 15 years, prior to the recession, other types of benefit claim reduced significantly – notably for lone parents and people on sickness benefits . Labour’s rhetoric in opposition seems strangely oblivious to its record in office- described by David Freud no less as “remarkable”.

There is serious thinking going on in Labour circles on what the next phase of social security reform might look like, and there are hints of this in Byrne’s Guardian article. But seconding grievances against benefit claimants and then seeking to evade the consequences by saying you aren’t talking about disability benefits is a untenable position.

The opposition should be trying to change the terms of debate, not passively reproducing them.

That wouldn’t generate friendly coverage in the Daily Mail – but as the blogger Mason Dixon, Autisticput it:

“Short-term headlines are not worth the lasting brilliance of a solid paradigm change in a national debate.”

See also:

• Miliband quizzed on disability reforms, apologises for omission from speech – Shamik Das, September 30th 2011

• Miliband must stop spreading myths about benefit claimants – Tim Nichols, September 28th 2011

• How disability reforms were whitewashed from Labour’s conference – Daniel Elton, September 27th 2011

• Shameful incapacity benefit consensus between main parties must stop – Steve Griffiths, January 5th 2011

• The paradoxical stability of welfare expenditure (and why we should be spending more)– Declan Gaffney, July 10th 2010

 How disability reforms were whitewashed from Labour’s conference – Daniel Elton, September 27th 2011

 Shameful incapacity benefit consensus between main parties must stop – Steve Griffiths, January 5th 2011

• The paradoxical stability of welfare expenditure (and why we should be spending more)– Declan Gaffney, July 10th 2010

www.leftfootforward.org

Comments
  • After Atos January 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Labour is trying to run with the hare (defending disabled claimants) while hunting with the hounds (attacking those who ‘spend a lifetime on benefits’). That’s not true. I have been at meetings where left and labour have said about using the disabled and lone parents and other disadvantaged to gain their hand by using and abusing themselves, making their lot worse then blaming it on the Tories and the cuts. Also prior to the election when Haig brought in the Atos assessments and horrors were happening then, including serious outcomes, children and death labour and haig said to ignore and dismiss the experiences and complaints. Also through the election Labour and all were informed to no mention the disabled in their rhetoric. Labour are all liars and desperately looking for the spin and chance that will get them through. And I object to this demonising and splitting the people against one another. It has raised prejudice and discrimination and people in genuine need and poor prospects are being attacked and abused because of it. On a Labour blog the other day about the same thing, many blamed those unemployed. I had to remind them that the economic crash happened on their shift when banks collapsed and firms and businesses went overnight including famous names and big long term names. Is there something that makes people forget that the recession and people out of work is because there is a recession and businesses not being made and those existing still collapsing. Why are people so dumb fuck stupid. Sorry for the swear but the pig ignorance and its endorsement is making me MAD!!

    My letter to Ed Miliband and the rest this year is PLEASE DO NOT TREAT US WITH THE ASSUMPTION WE ARE AS THICK AS “SHIT FOR BRAINS” YOU ARE. No Vote continues. Bastard PR bandwagon following scum. and Yes there is an alternative – Yourselves.

  • After Atos January 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    In the times when there was no party that represented the common man or spoke up for him, or defended the rights of the estranged encampments of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not mentioning the poor dispossessed north and women and children. Before any man or political party existed to speak or defend us and there was not even a vote, people organised and arranged to support themselves through little co-operatives and mutual societies and little independent presbyterian and congregations with conviction and a commitment to each other. While we wait and watch and wait despairingly for the next party of person to represent us in parliament or the corridors of power. (how nice of them to mention us and remember us) we are to arrange to support and protect ourselves and come to our own arrangements to support and arrange businesses, economics and commerce. Been done before, can be done again. We just forgot because we got soft. All the history and examples are there, learn from it. and learn it first for yourselves and those close to you. Practice it before others will believe and follow. Good Luck. this is a fight, and a kick in the bollocks for Labour might be a good start. Remind them we are our own man and our own people.

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