Fearing the brown envelope: sickness benefits and welfare reform

"I try not to read about it cos it’s so frightening."

For the past three years, and at a time of increased anxiety for sick and disabled people given ongoing welfare reform, I have been studying the lives of long-term sickness benefits recipients in North East England as part of my PhD research.

Narratives revealed a huge amount of fear and trepidation over ongoing welfare reform. Participants spoke about worrying about the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos on a daily basis, accompanied by a deep mistrust of the entire system. Below, Fred (all names are pseudonyms), 53, who has been receiving Incapacity Benefit (IB) for 9 years and suffers polyarthritis, gives his thoughts on the process:

I think it’s gonna cause breakdowns, possibly even the worst case scenario y’know topping yourself. If the Government could cut a penny in half, they would. I think if they could bring euthanasia in, they would. If they could find a way of getting round all the moral outrage they’d probably do it. Take all the lame ones out, just like a sick animal.

This is particularly noteworthy given that statistics suggest sick and disabled people have considered suicide as a result of fear over the assessment process. In a survey of over 300 people receiving IB, MIND found that 51 per cent of people reported the fear of assessment had made them feel suicidal.

Some respondents specifically mentioned their fear over receiving an official-looking brown envelope through their letterbox – a possible indicator of communication from the DWP. Sarah, 54, has battled with mental health problems all her life and is now dealing with a range of physical health problems such as arthritis and Reynaud’s syndrome, said of her daily dread of being selected for the reassessment:

When the postman comes with any sort of brown envelope it is really worrying… I try not to read about it cos it’s so frightening, it’s like 'oh my God they’ll send you to the dole straightaway' is what’s in your mind. Who will employ you, and what jobs are there? Where are the jobs? If they send me for a job 20 miles away, how do I afford the bus fare on minimum wage?

Aside from the obvious fear presented in the narratives, a feeling of stigma and shame was described as being created by political and mass media representations of the reform process. An increasingly unavoidable occurrence within government rhetoric and the media is the labelling of sick and disabled people who are receiving welfare benefits. There is no mention of the causes, symptoms, lack of diagnosis, treatment or support.

Upcoming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reforms are poised to create further anxiety and distress for sick and disabled people. The Government has pledged to cut DLA by 20 per cent and are replacing DLA with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) which sees the end of the automatic entitlement of people with certain impairments and focuses instead on support for those deemed 'most in need' (pdf).

Iain Duncan Smith suggested that the 30 per cent rise for claims for DLA was a result of fraud in the system, despite the fact that official DWP figures estimate fraud is a mere 0.5 per cent. What is often unsaid is that DLA is not simply an out-of-work sickness benefit – it is intended to help people meet the extra costs of disability-related care and mobility whether in paid employment or not. In August the government announced that Atos will be responsible for carrying out the PIP assessment, a contract worth a huge £400m. Given that the handling of the WCA by Atos was "impersonal and mechanistic" and essentially deemed unfit for purpose, it can only be hoped that history will not repeat itself with the forthcoming DLA assessments.

Photograph: Getty Images

Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography at Durham University

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.