Disabled people have never had it so bad

Media rhetoric and verbal abuse in public places.

Many people have been shocked by a story which appeared on Twitter yesterday. Alex has collated the tweets here. To put this in context, the poster Thomas Hemingford’s twitter profile reads: "Man. Married, disabled wife. 3 Children, 1 disabled." Now read on:

"A good friend took me & my wife out last night to a restaurant, it was a really nice gesture, until this guy came up to our table, shouting....  He went on, for ages, saying how he supported David Cameron and how he's "putting disabled people in their place".....He went on at us for about 15 minutes, it was very difficult and we were made to feel worthless.... My friend had to restrain himself, we thought he'd done, then he started making out all disabled people don't work & get £500 a week....This idiot had been drinking, but he was well spoken, it's alarming people can think like this and say such things. ...What was bad too, there were others in the place agreeing with him. It's very alarming, this Govt have created this mentality...I've felt attitudes have changed over past 2 years, I've never experienced so much abuse and discrimination. It's both Govt and media."

This is not an isolated incident. There is growing concern about the number of well-documented cases of disabled people being subjected to verbal abuse and worse in public places, and the belief that these incidents are driven by political and media rhetoric on welfare reform is widespread.

Of course it is very difficult to show either that the number of incidents is increasing (people may be more likely to report them) or that there is a causal link to what the media and politicians are saying.  But it is possible to look at whether the vocabulary and content of media and political discourse has grown more or less negative over time: the results show that whether or not they are contributing to the problem, it is very unlikely they are helping.

The figures here come from analysis of a large dataset of articles on welfare published in UK national newspapers between 1995 and 2011. We assembled the dataset as part of a project on benefits stigma commissioned by the charity Turn2Us last year. (You can read the report here). The report wasn’t specifically about disability benefits, and there wasn’t room to include all the analysis we would have liked, so these are new figures.

We analysed the content of articles using a set of "themes" which occur in a lot of coverage of benefits: the most important of these were need, fraud, ‘scrounging’ – people claiming who shouldn’t be for reasons other than fraud- compulsion to take up work or training, claimants being better off on benefits, large families on benefits and anti-social behaviour.  Only articles where these themes made a substantive contribution to the content are included- these are not articles that make glancing reference to  need or fraud, for example.

The headline results for articles dealing with disability and benefits are shown in the chart. We’ve divided the entire period covered by the data into two sub-periods of equal length, breaking in June 2003. In the first period, up to June 2003, 42 per cent of articles dealt with need compared to 29 per cent using one or more of the negative themes. In the second period, some 58 per cent of articles used negative themes to only 27 per cent of articles in which need was a theme. So the sense that newspaper coverage has grown more negative over time seems fully justified. There has been both growth in articles with negative content and a fall in articles with more sympathetic content. (There is an overlap between these two categories, with some articles combining negative and sympathetic themes: this overlap has also reduced, with more articles containing only negative themes.)

Source: Consistent 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian

In fairness, we should point out that one of our ‘negative’ themes is ‘compulsion’- articles which refer to measures to oblige claimants to take up work or training. This plays an important role in the growth of negative coverage, reflecting both the previous and current  governments’ emphasis on benefit conditionality.  While the prominence of compulsion in public debate may be a driver of broader negativity towards claimants, it would be unfair to blame the media for simply reporting government policy. But when we exclude articles in which compulsion is the only negative theme, while the growth in negative content is reduced, we still find a doubling of the percentage of negative articles (from 20% to 41%).  So straightforward reporting of government policy isn’t the main driver of increased negativity.

We also looked at the vocabulary used in articles about incapacity benefit (and its predecessors and successors). For this, we used word-lists intended to capture specific types of negative associations: the most important were fraud (words like cheat, fiddle), non-reciprocity (handouts, scrounger, feckless, idle)and dependency (e.g. languishing on benefits). As can be seen, there was a huge growth in the number of articles on these benefits from 2003, and an increase in negativity. Both the total number of articles and the number of negative articles peaked in 2010. However there is also an important peak in 2008, coinciding with Labour’s incapacity benefit reforms- while there were more articles in 2010, the share of negative articles is similar in 2008.

Source:  Main 1995-2011 dataset, Turn2Us benefit stigma project. Titles included: Mirror Mail Times Independent Guardian Telegraph Sun Express

Does negative media coverage affect public attitudes? Almost certainly: in our report we showed that the level of negativity in the newspapers people read had an effect on their perceptions of benefit fraud, even controlling for other factors that influence attitudes. Media coverage is not the only factor, and probably not the most important factor, but it serves to reinforce suspicions and ill-founded grievances against all people of working age on benefits, including disabled claimants. The extreme views of people like the idiot who ruined Thomas Hemingford, his wife and friends’ evening are hopefully confined to a tiny minority, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the biggest selling UK newspapers: media coverage helps form a public environment in which people can think this sort of behaviour is socially acceptable. And as we showed in our report, politics is the big driver of negative coverage, with Conservative, Labour and the coalition governments all playing a role.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ben Baumberg is a Lecturer at the University of Kent and co-editor of the collaborative blog Inequalities, Kate Bell works mainly at Child Poverty Action Group, and Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. Together they published "Benefits stigma in Britain".

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.