Labour’s failings on disability – and the way forward

Ben Baumberg writes about where Labour can move on from the ‘benefit scrounger’ argument.

Liam Byrne is Very Angry at you for scrounging


Ben Baumberg is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, and co-editor of the blog Inequalities

In a climate of austerity where bad news is normal, the occasional rays of good news are welcome – and Wednesday’s defeat for the government over welfare reform is certainly one.

Crossbenchers joined Labour peers (with abstaining Lib Dems) in crushing Lord Freud’s attempt to withdraw contributory incapacity benefits from people with cancer, those who are disabled from birth, and anyone other than the poorest who is sicker for longer than 12 months.

This was a rearguard action spurred by some fantastic disability campaigners, culminating in Monday’s #spartacus report.

But one swallow does not make a summer. The government have already announced plans to over-rule the Lords through the Commons – assuming Wednesday’s outrageous chicanery by Lord Freud comes to naughtAnd Labour have struggled to find a way of talking about disability that could mobilise opposition.

The most striking example of this was Ed Miliband’s ‘responsibility’ speech, which began with the story of a man who had a ‘real injury’ yet was not completely incapable of work – a man said to be representing the ‘irresponsible’ strand in society.

Why can’t Labour come up with a better narrative?

To understand what’s going on here, we need to look a bit deeper at the intellectual bedrock of Labour’s emerging welfare blueprint.

This has been laid by the Fabians in The Solidarity Society (TSS) – whose lead author (Tim Horton) is now working as a senior adviser to Ed – and this part of the story runs as follows:

“The benefits system is ungenerous because it is unpopular. People consistently tell researchers that too many claimants are not really ‘deserving’, while people like them aren’t given fair rewards for playing by the rules.

“The answer is to build a more generous benefits system based around reciprocity, where benefit payments are seen as a fair reward for contributing to the system. Unlike the old system that penalised women, reciprocity under the ‘participatory principle’ includes a broad view of contribution that includes care work.”

Horton and Gregory’s analysis is a great place to start rebuilding social security – but it has two problems.

Firstly, the concept of reciprocity is hardly new; for example, it was integral to Tony Blair’s attempts to ‘make the welfare state popular again’.

TSS puts forward a persuasive case for ‘good conditionality’, in contrast to the wrong form of (harsh) conditionality that cements a discourse of weeding out the undeserving. TSS catalogues this in painstaking detail, but the temptation for politicians is always to resort to headline-chasing through scrounger-bashing.

But the bigger problem is that the emphasis on reciprocity doesn’t deal with the challenges to incapacity benefits.

The public are sceptical and fed an increasing diet of stories about fraud and ‘scroungers’.  Many – although not most – claimants are viewed as undeserving; in my analysis of British Social Attitudes 2007 data, people on average thought that 1 in 3 incapacity benefit claimants were claiming fraudulently.

Yet in the whole of TSS, there is barely a mention of incapacity.

Labour have acquiesced to this account of fraud rather than challenged it, as Ed Miliband’s response to campaigner Kaliya Franklin at the 2011 conference made uncomfortably clear. Liam Byrne’s main criticism of the Welfare Reform Bill last weekend was therefore about cutting the contributory principle in incapacity benefits, but not the idea that too many ‘irresponsible’ people are claiming such benefits.

So what can we do?

To beat back the tide of vitriol against incapacity claimants, we can’t just keep talking about the contributory principle. At some point we have to argue that disabled people are genuinely deserving – not just that (some) people have previously paid into the system, but that disabled people’s current difficulties are only too real.

Partly this means making clear that many disabilities are hidden or fluctuating; you usually know very little about exactly what your neighbour, your friend, or your family feel.

But partly we need to re-think our views of incapacity. Politicians consistently talk about people who are ‘completely incapable of work’ – but in the immortal words of Sidney Webb, this can only mean the ‘literally unconscious or asleep’.

Everyone else is capable of some work (cue the endless use of the Stephen Hawking example); the question is whether work is organised in such a way that makes this possible.

And it isn’t. Employers – particularly for lower-paid jobs – are rarely willing to tolerate unpredictable absences, just because people are good workers on their good days.

Minor reasonable adjustments are not uncommon, but major adjustments to the workplace are seen as ‘unreasonable’, as DWP-commissioned research makes clear; indeed, the Government has a fund (Access to Work) which implicitly is a way of funding unreasonable adjustments.

In other words, the question is not about whether people are capable of work in some ideal scenario, but whether they are profitable for employers in the here-and-now.

Such ideas are not policy proposals in themselves.

But they create a space in which more ambitious policy proposals can take shape – not just the welcome focus on early workplace interventions but also sharper demands on employers to make accommodations; greater incentives for them to recruit disabled people; and both meaningful work and adequate support for people who can’t find a job that they are fit enough to do.

The Fabians have started the debate, but Saturday’s Fabian conference needs to think more about incapacity if Labour are to provide a meaningful, moral alternative to the Tories on welfare.

See also:

• “Demonising the government”: Sue Marsh v Chris Grayling (and Emily Maitlis) –  Alex Hern, January 13th 2012

• 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

  • Ben Baumberg

    Just to clarify – the bit in quotes summarising The Solidarity Society IS NOT their words, but my very brief summary of a pretty substantial book. (Apologies to Horton and Gregory if they feel I could have made this clearer!)

  • Nancyrowina

    I heard the “Access to work Fund” No longer exists, or if it does it’s so hard to access people aren’t getting it. Glad to see someone making the point about employers being unable to deal with unpredictable absences when employees have “bad days” too. Just because I could work on a “good day” doesn’t mean I could everyday, and how much absence should an employer be expected to put up with before they filled my job with someone who could come in every day. And is it prejudice on their part? I don’t think so as they are trying to run a business and it doesn’t make sense to have a job filled by someone who can’t be there all the time they are expected to be. Even the most understanding employer in the world could not afford to put up with that.

  • Anonymous

    “The answer is to build a more generous benefits system based around reciprocity, where benefit payments are seen as a fair reward for contributing to the system. Unlike the old system that penalised women, reciprocity under the ‘participatory principle’ includes a broad view of contribution that includes care work.”


    1. 170K a year for benefit claimants, tax free, in Knightsbridge. That is not welfare, that is fraud by the government.

    You’re not addressing that. That isn’t Generosity, its stark raving lunacy.

    2. Why does the government need to be involved?

    For example, introduce compulsory savings, paid for by the elimination of NI. Then when people need the money, they have it.

    We have seen that MPs were careful spending other people’s money on themselves. They aren’t careful spending other people’s money on other people. The most careful are those who spend their money on themselves.

    You just then need hardship welfare for those whose money runs out.

    Downside for your client state, is that they don’t get their cut administering a large system, depriving people of their money.


    1. You won’t get the state out, because so many of your supporters work in the ‘poverty industry’ They are taking money from the poor to live a life better than the people they purport to help. That’s immoral.

    2. You have to keep the money flowing into the state, not because that helps the poor, but because you’ve set up a Ponzi scam and you need new joiners to keep it going.


    But partly we need to re-think our views of incapacity.


    Correct. The increase from 1 million disabled to 2.5 million shows that you’ve got it wrong. With no money left, and lots of debts, you are going to have to pick your favourites.

    In other words, the question is not about whether people are capable of work in some ideal scenario, but whether they are profitable for employers in the here-and-now.

    Obvious question, that I bet you won’t answer.

    What should the test be for disability?

    I’ll give you mine. You get 100% of any additional costs, in or out of work. Otherwise you get treated the same as anyone else. Same benefits, same tax, …

  • Ben Baumberg

    Too much to respond to in a short reply! But to take your last point, which is the most direct challenge: the test for disability should be a real-world test. By which I mean, if work is organised in a way that clashes with your impairment, and you’re not working as a result, then you have a work disability, and you should be entitled to benefits.

    LordBlagger, you suggest that people should get their additional costs, but then we pay no attention to whether their health affects their ability to get a job. So if I’m working and then get sick, and lose my job as a result, then I should be treated as ‘unemployed’. That’s a coherent position (it’s actually a more extreme version of the Universal Benefit that’s being introduced) – but in this extreme form it’s not one you’ll find most people in this country supporting, and nor do I.

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  • Nick Leaton

    1. The work you were doing, or that there are jobs you can do?

    For example, lets say your eyesight deteriorates. Your job was an airline pilot. Should the real world test apply to your job as a pilot, or to other sorts of jobs?

    My view, it applies to jobs in general.

    2. Yes, you should be treated as unemployed. When that paid for benefit runs out, you get treated the same way as any other person without income, with any additional costs met.

    This treats people with stress differently, say for someone who is paraplegic. The first wouldn’t get extra costs. The second would, and lots of help. I pretty certain that I’m in the majority on that point.

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  • Ben Baumberg

    Interesting response. First bit is easier – the most common answer is that you should have a little bit of time where you get benefits because you can’t do your old job, but after a short while you’re required to start looking for jobs more generally.

    The second bit is more interesting (and perhaps I dismissed LordBlagger a bit quickly here, apols). There are various ways that people can be ‘treated differently’ because of their impairments:
    1. The name of the benefit (‘unemployment’ vs. ‘incapacity’)
    2. The amount the benefit gives them
    3. What they’re asked to do in return for receiving the benefit
    4. What support they’re given to get back to work

    I think there’s an overwhelming case that people with impairments should be treated differently from non-impaired unemployed people on some of these – but that’s different from saying that the case is equally strong for all of them. Lord Freud is not the only one to argue that separate named benefits are unhelpful (Roy Sainsbury at York is another, and I very much respect his opinions even when I disagree with them).

    The case for differential treatment is probably strongest for 3 and 4 above – that is, we don’t ask terminally ill cancer patients to sign-on every week in the way that normal unemployed people have to (even if they’re on the same named benefit and receiving the same amount). And in-between these extremes there are a range of other situations, where I still think differential treatment is (that horribly over-used word) fair.

    It’s an interesting debate – but I don’t think my main point depends on it. The problem is that we have a view of incapacity (‘completely incapable of work’) that is simply wrong, and which breeds this view of ‘scrounging’ that justifies the direction of policy in recent years. If Labour want to challenge it and ensure that (i) more people with impairments are in work; and (ii) non-working disabled people are treated decently, then they need to get beyond it.

  • Anonymous

    What the hell are you doing here blagger Tory home is open to Tories.

    we have 12 million people who have disabilities 2.5 million are people who in the main have worked and paid stamp, eight million are of working age, we believe four million have had disabilities from birth, so what do we do with them, children born disabled can always be destroyed Hitler did a great job.

    But of course we now know about more illness and disabilities labour have added a few more with it’s wars.

    But the big problem of course is when you have the EU deciding what countries should or should not pay out

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