“Demonising the government”: Sue Marsh v Chris Grayling (and Emily Maitlis)

Alex Hern presents the clash between disability campaigner Sue Marsh and employment minister Chris Grayling from last night’s Newsnight.

Chris Grayling, the Primark IDS


Disability campaigner Sue Marsh appeared on Newsnight last night to debate the education minister Chris Grayling – and, at times, the presenter Emily Maitlis as well.

Explaining campaigners problems with an aspect of the bill which introduces means-testing for children disabled from birth, Marsh said:

“What that amendment was actually about, we felt, was that children who were born profoundly disabled, who might not be able to work when they get older, should have an entitlement when they reach adulthood to an independent income. They shouldn’t have to rely on parents or family to look after them.

“If you’re born that profoundly disabled, you should have an income in your own right.”

Maitlis’s response to Marsh was to accuse her of ‘demonising’ the government:

“And it’s very easy, isn’t it, to demonise the government over such an emotive issue as this, when the government has clearly stated that for cases of long term chronic illness, the support group will not change its benefit structure.

“This is only about people who presumably you would want to see getting back to work.”

Grayling, meanwhile, was free to spin about the success of the government’s “revolutionary new work program” without addressing the fact that this is the same work program that forces people to work for just £1.78 an hour.

Watch the debate in full:

And read a transcript of the full exchange:

Emily Maitlis: “[Liam Byrne] said you were “crossing the line of decency”. Is it more important for you to save money even if you face that kind of accusation?”

Chris Grayling: “I think he’s just plain wrong, and I think that the Labour party last week, Liam Byrne personally was talking about the need to take tough decisions on welfare, and this week he’s doing just the opposite. And lets be clear about what we’re not doing. We are not taking away benefits from people who have no other income.

“We are not taking away benefits from people who are not going to be able to work again. We are making changes for people who’ve got another income, or who’ve got thousands of pounds of savings in the bank.

“So that’s the principle of what we’re doing.”

Maitlis: “Sure. And that was presumably understood pretty well by those in the Lords. Lord Patel, though, was saying he is sympathetic to cutting the deficit, but highly sympathetic to something that will make the lives of weak and vulnerable people even more miserable. I mean, this is why it’s being shouted down now.”

Grayling: “Well, if you take the example of one of the amendments last night, on young people, what we’ve got is a situation right now where if young person reaches adult life, and they have other financial means, they could receive for example a substantial inheritance, they’re still able to unconditionally receive benefit support for an ongoing period.

“Now, if they’re never going to be able to work, the situation won’t change for them.

“But if they are in the position where with the right help, and through our work program we’ve put in place specialist support to help people who’ve got the potential to return to work to do so, then I don’t think it’s right that somebody who’s got other financial means should depend on taxpayers, who are on relatively low incomes themselves very often, to pay the money to help people who’ve already got money themselves.”

Maitlis: “And Sue Marsh, what’s so wrong with that?”

Sue Marsh: “What that amendment was actually about, we felt, was that children who were born profoundly disabled, who might not be able to work when they get older, should have an entitlement when they reach adulthood to an independent income. They shouldn’t have to rely on parents or family to look after them. If you’re born that profoundly disabled, you should have an income in your own right.”

Grayling: “But for those children in a position where they’ll never work, they’ll be in, on employment support allowance in what’s called the support group, which is something we’ve increased in size, we’re providing more long term unconditional support than the previous government.”

Marsh: “This is about national insurance credits…”

Grayling: “Then those people won’t be in a different situation. Their situation won’t have changed.”

Maitlis: “And it’s very easy, isn’t it, to demonise the government over such an emotive issue as this, when the government has clearly stated that for cases of long term chronic illness, the support group will not change its benefit structure. This is only about people who presumably you would want to see getting back to work.”

Marsh: “First of all we don’t think enough people are going in to the support group, that’s one of the big flaws with the employment and support allowance. We don’t feel that enough people with long term conditions are getting that unconditional support.”

Maitlis: “So that’s not about an actual, an amendment to a reform…”

Marsh: “No, the amendments to the reforms yesterday, I mean we were sitting there watching the debate, and one of the debates was about how terminally ill you have to be to qualify for benefits. Being terminally ill for six months, that was OK, you would get some support, unconditional support.

“If you were terminally ill for three years, or four years, you weren’t going to get that support. I find it shocking that I’m living in a country where I sit there and hear ministers or lords arguing over how terminally ill you have to be to get benefits.”

Maitlis: “If we didn’t have a deficit problem, would you still want to bring about this kind of reform anyway?”

Grayling: “We’d certainly still want to change the welfare state, and make it much more relevant to our core objective, to help people back into work, and disabled people back into work, and it’s a key goal.

“The point about the support group, the long term group, who do receive unconditional support from the state, we’ve grown that in the past year, it’s bigger than it was when we took office, we’ve introduced conditions that are consciously intended to make sure we provide better support for people who’ve got long term mental health problems.

“But yes of course we’re having to take tough decisions because of the deficit, we’ve got to do that across a whole range of different areas, and yes there are things we are having to do which we’d rather not have to do. We’re certainly trying to get the balance right.”

Maitlis: “And it would be very easy, wouldn’t it, to say once somebody has been classified as disabled or a chronic sufferer they need never be assessed again. That might not be helping either the state or the individual.”

Marsh: “That wasn’t what the debate was about, though, yesterday. We weren’t talking about assessments. One of the other votes that failed was for a one year time-limit on employment support allowance.

“Not for the people who go into the unconditional group, but for the people who are judged to be unwell, unfit to work, but maybe can get back to work with the right support. Now, when ESA was originally designed, they thought that it would take between two and five years for those people, with the right support, and that’s the key thing, to get back into work.

“Now, introducing a one-year time limit means someone like me who’s been ill for 27 years, I’m now going to be, after one year if I don’t go into that support group, entirely dependent on my husband, who doesn’t earn very much, to survive.”

Maitlis: “But you heard that there are increasing numbers of people on disability benefit now, they don’t want to live on it, they want to come off it presumably, and be back at work.”

Marsh: “And that’s fantastic, that’s absolutely fantastic and there’s no problem with that at all.”

Maitlis: “But do you see the problem with that if there is no kind on means assessment at all?”

Marsh: “No one’s calling for no assessment at all, I don’t think, I don’t think anyones calling for no assessment. I think we need a fair assessment, I think we need an assessment that looks at people’s conditions individually, I don’t think we can have a tick-box system of fifteen questions where you sit in front of somebody and they just go through the questions and say you have to fit this rigid system.”

Maitlis: “Chris Grayling, we’ve seen a lot of U-turns already from your government. Successive governments have tried and failed on welfare reform, you’ve already been defeated in the lords, you’ve got legal challenges with the unemployment benefit cuts, are you starting to realise why nobody ever manages to do this?”

Grayling: “Well, we are going to do this. This is part of a transformation of our welfare state that is really necessary.

“In many of our communities now we’ve already got long-term endemic worklessness that has gone from generation to generation, we have an appallingly low level of people with disabilities in work, what we’ve done with our revolutionary new work program, on a payment by results basis, we’ve got organisations that are delivering personalised support from long term benefit dependency, they have the freedom to do what works and we only pay them when they’re successful.

Maitlis: “And you sound very certain that you would pull this off. We’ve already heard David Cameron hint that child benefit might be relooked at.

“His words were:

‘We’d always said we’d look at steepness of the curve, look at the way its implemented.’

“This is something that you introduced at the Tory conference before last. The Telegraph is leading on this rethink of child benefit cuts – that’s going to change now, isn’t it?”

Grayling: “I mean first of all in terms of our welfare reforms there’s no u-turns planned, I’m in the position where child benefit’s done by the treasury as part of the budget preparations, so I don’t know what the treasury are doing because I’m in a different department.”

Maitlis: “Would you be surprised if there was a rethink on child benefits?”

Grayling: “I’d be surprised if we saw a major U-turn on child benefit…”

Maitlis: “But you wouldn’t call it a major U-turn. Would you be surprised if there was a change to that policy now?”

Grayling: “We will always, with every policy, try to implement it in as sensible a way as possible. But I’ve heard nothing to suggest that we’re about to change direction massively on child benefit. But no, the prime minister said he would be careful and thoughtful about how we do it, and try and make changes as efficiently and effectively and fairly as possible.”

See also:

Welfare reform bill in tatters after Lords defeats – Shamik Das, January 12th 2012

Children’s commissioner slams welfare bill – Alex Hern, January 11th 2012

Everyone concerned about welfare reform needs to step up to the mark – Declan Gaffney, January 10th 2012

Disability minister ignorant on how legal aid cuts affecting disabled people – Alex Hern, January 10th 2012

Yet another nasty in the welfare bill: Means testing support for the disabled-since-youth – Declan Gaffney, September 22nd 2011

  • tiajunior

    As Mark says, the examples quoted are always at the extreme, never the norm, but made to sound as if that’s what they are. Always worth making that clear. A bit like basing a proposition to get rid of state pensions on Richard Branson not needing his. In fact, if they want to save some money, it that not a better place to start?

  • Redisbleu

    But we’re not talking about the “feckless scrounger” here – we’re talking about disabled people, or disabled children who could not possibly EVER work, or disabled people who are too ill to ever work. No one is arguing against the “scroungers. The issue is its the scroungers who know how to play the system and will always find a way out of it. It’s the extremely ill who won’t, and that’s the issue here, and what Sue was talking about. Of course, the not-so-unbiased BBC tried to turn it into another issue entirely.

  • Redisbleu

    What pension is this? I don’t have one. I got ill while I was starting to get my career going and so pension, no chance.

    How is it 50% of the economy if it all goes into offshore investments? Actually if we want to argue that they’re putting it right back into the economy, you understand that all those “scroungers” buy items too? Which are subject to VAT? Which is actually tax and economy? I know it comes as a shock but as a person on DLA and housing benefit, I am also a taxpayer.

    Really, we can sit here and argue round for round, or we can demand that politicians find another way. This is their job, after all, not to say “oh well, I can’t possibly give up my third/fourth home to help out.” If there’s any fault at the moment, it’s with us, the British public that just mutters and goes to make a cup of tea rather than demand our rights and country back.

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  • Guest

    Glad someone else noticed how ridiculously biased this interview was. I will say that the fact Sue Marsh seemed emotional (although this is an emotional context and there is no reason not to be emotional) didn’t help. But I only say that because on this debate emotions sadly will not sell. She needed to come in with facts and figures and beat the Tories at their own game – she needed to talk about the cost of ATOS etc. She needed to talk about the short-termism. Getting people back into work if they can do ANYTHING is a rather punitive way of saying now you are too ill to do the job you trained for and have worked hard at, you can go into administration on £6 per hour because you can still lift a pen. This of course means you may never recover enough (bed rest actually does have a point behind it, you know) to go back to the job you trained for and worked hard at.

    Basically – if you got ill, screw you. Life’s not fair get used to it.

    If you worked too hard at your last job and are off work due to burn out (which is a common reason) then you will be demonised for being lazy (huh?) and told to go back to work in a different job, possibly at a much lower pay and possibly leaving you in a limbo of half-recovery. Eventually that burnout will raise its head again and you will be off sick again. It would be much more intelligent to let people recover fully before they go back to work.

    As for the terminally ill. Most of us retire before we die and get a state pension along with any savings we have accrued. If you have worked for 30 years and find out at the age of 50 you will die in three years do you not get a retirement? They’ve been making NI payments so they should be given their pension. And if that is deemed unfair, then why just pick on the terminally ill? If the terminally ill have to work until they are too unwell, then we should all have to work until we are too unwell. That means no one retires, everybody stays in work and are assessed by private-sector occupational therapists, moved slowly into jobs that require less physical movement until they are incapable of any job at all. Then they are allowed to go on to measly benefits until they (by this time quite rapidly) die.

    There are problems with the benefits system that need to be addressed to make it fair, but to reduce us all to units of production like this is insane.

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  • Anonymous

    “to debate the education minister Chris Grayling”

    Oh come on LFF, I know you’re not that particular about proofreading, but this just makes you look silly.

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