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

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

  1. Declangaffney

    I think it’s unintentional in that people allow themselves to go along with the idea that a lot of disability benefit claims are inappropriate (not necessarily fraudulent) so they don’t think that ‘genuine’ disabled people are really affected. Which is bad faith rather than intentional meanness.

  2. Arecbalrin

    I’m half tempted to go into conspiracy mode(I’ve had this problem before) and say it appears like Liam Bryne and Iain Duncan-Smith almost co-orchestrated their activity over the last two days. First the Mail gets briefed, then Bryne appears to yet again ‘acknowledge’ what he never seems to actually stop acknowledging: that ‘Labour got it wrong on welfare’ and almost immediately Duncan-Smith is like “finally(for the third of fourth time actually), you accept this, now you should support our Welfare Reform Bill”.

    Neither of them lose anything from this; those who will not ever vote for Labour are reinforced in their views of Labour and that note Liam Bryne left for David Laws is mentioned repeatedly. Those who might vote Labour but hold the general widespread evidence-free position on welfare(“dem scroungers taking our money”) can be assured that Labour will be as bad as the Conservatives on it. Those optimists who always vote Labour can read into it what they want: either “Yes! They are going to do something about the benefits bill” or “Yes! They’re finally going to be fair and reasonable on the issue, I’ll tell everyone”.

    Those who actually know what’s going on (this is me bigging myself up, sorry), despair. Labour’s position in my eyes seems identical to the Conservative party. They are happy to accept blame for something that didn’t actually happen while they were in power because when they were getting that same stick in office, they used it to great effect to legitimate very extreme positions adopted on benefit claimants. They’re just going with what they know.

    Mason Dixon, Autistic.

  3. Blarg1987

    It would be interesting to note is this a symbol of the right, or a symbol of how self interested society has become, we are constantly being told that anyone who does not work hard is lazy, and if people are poor it is their own fault, granted there needs to be a work ethic, but if someone works hard for the minimum wage their whole life putting all the hours god gives to them to do the work, they still wont be a millionaire.

    Society needs to change its view and I think the media should be held more accountable when doing stories on the so called work shy and scroungers, a few complaints or law suits and I am sure the reality will be more transparent :).

  4. Felix

    Timbo, it is not at all suprising that Byrne is “pandering to the saloon bar mentality”. That is exactly how he got himself elected in the first place, pandering to racists and gutter politics.

  5. Lisa Ansell

    You might want to have a look at why welfare is a womens issue as well. Also Sunny Hundal and many of his friends worked tirelessly to ensure welfare reform was missed from their pages, while they demanded to be seen as leading the charge to fight the cuts. They did this for Labour even though we were absolutely aware of Labours stance on welfare. We have no political representation, no meaningful debate about welfare, and apparently our politicians have been listening to their own hatemongering for so long that they now believe it. This shocking display of where Labour are at on benefits is not shocking, it is where they are, and have been for years., They are attempting anything but addressing their own economic incompetence. Because grassroots labour didnt want to see that, they have worked to ensure that the people affected have not been heard, and any criticism of labour is to be hushed. And those claiming to be supportive of welfare issues have in the past year, denied access even to the anti0cuts movement, by ensuring it never got beyond people competing with ever more horrific stories for the attention span of a self satisfied left.

    This is not universally the case obviously. Labour have been attempting to triangulate using Broken of Britain and their disability minister since conference season.

    This year this position will become absolutely untenable, as any discussion which addresses the problems in our economy has to examine inequality, and will have to examine the relationship between our economic and social policy. This means actual debate about welfare which goes beyond ‘feel sorry for the pov and then vote Labour’. Labours current welfare rhetoric is not only disgusting, not only does it disenfranchise millions, but it shows them as economically incompetent and playing to a Murdoch agenda which is dying. Not wise. There is a reason we are looking at a long period of conservative hegemony and Labour have no idea what it is, because they can’t see past the facile nature of soundbites. With regard to the social care crisis we are being told about, the same applies. Again, Labour policy same as tories. And because all agreed this is an issue our politically affiliated media couldnt discuss.

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