Labour’s untenable position on social security and disability

Controversy rages about Liam Byrne and Labour’s developing position on social security reform as indicated in articles in the Daily Mail and The Guardian.


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.

Chart 1:

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 the United 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, Autistic put 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 speechShamik Das, September 30th 2011

Miliband must stop spreading myths about benefit claimantsTim Nichols, September 28th 2011

How disability reforms were whitewashed from Labour’s conferenceDaniel Elton, September 27th 2011

Shameful incapacity benefit consensus between main parties must stopSteve Griffiths, January 5th 2011

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

74 Responses to “Labour’s untenable position on social security and disability”

  1. Andy

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

    Thank you. Can we hold that thought please?

  2. Timbo

    It’s remarkable that Labour are so incapable of going on the attack on welfare given their decent record in office against the appalling record the Conservatives have.

    It is also utterly pathetic that Byrne is pandering to the saloon bar mentality and has spent no time in his current job actually learning in any depth about his portfolio. He seems to think of himself as some fantastically clever strategist who doesn’t need a proper understanding of his portfolio and can leave that to his junior shadow ministers. Sorry Byrne, you’re a New Labour bozo who needs to be urgently removed from the policy review job if it is to result in anything more than refried, technocratic ‘reforms’ that simply impose a harsher version of the current failing orthodoxy.

    A strengthening of the contributory principle has potential – Nordic countries manage both a stronger contributory principle and better protection for disabled people unable to work, so there is not inherent conflict. But, Byrne makes the same old tactical error of introducing this idea in the context of pandering to the tabloids by supporting their mythology that the common type of benefit claimant is the work-shy, sickness-faking scrounger [he will claim not to do this, as it is veiled in the ‘something for something’ artificial language that technocrats like him love to invent]. All this does is lead to the creation of overly bureaucratic systems of welfare provision built around a false premise which fails that overwhelming majority of claimants by demotivating them and stripping them of autonomy. The result is disengaged compliance with substandard work programmes, enmeshed in a byzantine bureaucracy. What we need is motivated engagement with high quality support that nurtures autonomy.

    The other big problem is jobs. Byrne mentions full employment once in his Guardian article, but does little to open this up as the core of the narrative that is needed. It’s time this became centre stage. Let’s hear the party bang on about full employment relentlessly.

    Let’s take the message out to traditional working class Labour territory that it is not about being ‘tough’ on claimants – we’ve had decades of that and nothing to show – but it is about jobs, training and welfare services that earn the trust of claimants and work with them to make progress in their lives through high quality, and personally tailored, skills and services.

    We would know if the party believed this if the front bench led amendments for the Welfare Reform Bill to make this kind of support a statutory entitlement for claimants. But they didn’t.

  3. Jos Bell

    Exactly so. This is the opportunity to re-design the semiotic landscape of disability. Instead of reacting to cheap stunt rhetoric, instead of being sucked into the judgemental magnet of accusation and opprobrium and being complicit in re-defining the spelling of disability into a word which starts with s and ends in r, we should be true to our social justice roots and ensure we speak true. The statistics should speak for themselves, however we need to build on them with empirical evidence which speaks to the wider community. We need to educate, not promulgate insults, which as Kaliya has said are becoming mainstream and increasingly re-defining perceptions of disability to the extreme negative.

    Firstly we should stress that many people in receipt of disability support do actually work – only BECAUSE they have that support. Other do voluntary work according to the limits of variable conditions. Disabled people contribute to society and to the economy.

    Secondly, we must acknowledge that disability is not a choice and can happen to anyone at any time. Out of the blue. ‘It could be you’

    Nobody elects to be born or to become disabled. Most people become sick or disabled at some point in their life – for most it is in older years, but when it appears the impact is sudden and shocking. The healthy years may also involve caring duties. The less the help from the state the more the negative impact upon the family – also interfering with work capacity of the healthy family members. Knit this all together and the micro challenges then become the macro deficit

    We need to be very clear to the electorate that positive disability support measures are good for the economy – indeed integral to sustainable growth.

    The vast majority of the disabled would like to work, however employers tend to run a mile from employing a disabled person – it is statistically almost impossible to re-enter the workplace after contracting a life changing condition. For those with variable conditions, self employment is unlikely to provide an answer unless they work in partnership with other party or parties – and of course the need for capital investment is a huge barrier to most who would like to pursue this route. Savings are unlikely to exist. Banks are not lending. Not just a Catch 22 – a Pi to A Million trap .

    The list of issues which need to be addressed in this vein is sizeable. Only those who are directly affected know the reality. Only when a representative number of people who are disabled and who are carers are properly consulted will the solutions emerge. Politicians must stop viewing everyone in this cohort as ‘a problem’ to run away from, to condemn or to temporarily mollify – they must recognise the reality and discover and develop the real solutions which are ready and waiting in the wings..

  4. Anonymous

    Declan: are you sure Labour’s scrounger rhetoric is ‘unintentionally’ aimed at the disabled? I don’t see that Sue says that, nor do I believe it. They started this whole mess, after all.

  5. jack s

    Ultimately with rising unemployment, and full employment nowhere in sight, all of these debates should be irrelevant. There aren’t any jobs to force our hypothetically scroungers into. So essentially this boils down to a call to further impoverish people in circumstances beyond their control.

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