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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.