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The five most dangerous myths about sickness and disability benefits

Iain Duncan Smith’s “overhaul” of the benefit system is surrounded by harmful distortions.

In a major speech, Iain Duncan Smith has called for an “overhaul” of the disability and sickness benefit system.

As a man with a history of not knowing the difference between fact and “some stuff I made up because it seemed to help at the time”, it worried me to see that the work and pensions secretary seemed to find himself here again.

In the old-fashioned belief public policy should be based on reality, here’s five myths around sickness and disability benefits.

 

1. Disability and sickness benefits are a sign of welfare dependency

Creating the impression that you’re going to announce a humane, competent understanding of disability and sickness doesn’t get off to a great start when the entire first section of your speech is dedicated to the idea there is a “sickness benefit culture in this country”.

In fact, if like me you prefer to watch any Iain Duncan Smith appearance whilst playing a round of “demonisation of benefit claimants” drink bingo, you would have been catatonic after around three minutes. The Conservatives inherited “a welfare system where a life on benefits paid more than having a job”. (DRINK.)  “A life without work, for many, had become ‘the norm’.” (DRINK.)  Benefits are “handouts”. (DRINK.) There is such a thing as “worklessness”. (DRINK.)   

These terms are ridiculous enough when discussing Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) but take on a special level of ridiculous when discussing Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). It doesn’t take an expert to grasp that a person being unable to earn an income because of Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis is not a sign of a “sickness benefit culture” but a sign that someone is sick. Something is not a “culture” because I want it to be. You may as well say Britain has a culture of badgers. Sure, it’s true there are badgers in the country. But knowing that doesn’t make me want to paint myself black and white.

 

2. Cutting benefits is what helps disabled or ill people get back to work

If you can stand to make your way through the opening paragraphs on how lazy out of work people are, what’s striking about the latest nod to “disability benefit reform” is that Duncan Smith said a couple of things that made sense. For example, employers are sometimes reluctant to employ people with disabilities or that “the poor quality of support” many sick and disabled people receive is a key factor in them not returning to work. 

I mean, Duncan Smith should know. Considering he’s been the one overseeing the removal of disabled people’s support for the past five years.

The problem with successfully pointing out some problems is that it means nothing if you adopt counterproductive solutions. Duncan Smith’s latest words may point blame towards the structures (cultural prejudice, difficulties of the labour market, lack of in-work support) but his policies put it firmly back on the individual (people need incentivising to get off sickness benefits).

If Duncan Smith cared about “supporting” people struggling to work due to illness or disability, he wouldn't sanction, time limit, or directly cut their benefits. Similarly, he wouldn’t annihilate in-work support such as Access to Work. 

As it is, the government telling bosses to be more reasonable and understanding to the disabled and chronically ill is like a great white shark advocating vegetarianism. It means more if you don’t currently have blood in your teeth.  

 

3. An “unfit for work” assessment should be based on what an ill or disabled person can do

Considering the assessment the government is currently using is one that finds coma patients fit for work, I think most of us would be fully supportive of changes to the Work Capability Assessment – the test that decides if someone is eligible for ESA. But Duncan Smith’s idea “we need a system focused on what a claimant can do” has the whiff of a motivational trainer about it.  As he put it, “someone may be able to do some work for some hours, days or weeks, but not what they were doing previously”.  

I might be able to design handcrafted One Direction figures out of toilet rolls and cotton wool. It doesn’t mean there’s a job out there that meets that specification or there is an employer who will hire me for it. Similarly, to say that someone with chronic fatigue can get to work at 11am and do “some work for some hours” is not the same as saying stable, suitable employment exists for them. Zero hour contracts do not count.

The way health conditions interact with the labour market – that is, the lack of flexibility around helping disabled or chronically ill people at work – is a key problem. But without concrete strategies in place, a test that “focuses on what a claimant can do” is a recipe for removing their benefits. Being found “fit for work” does not count if said work does not exist.     

 

4. ESA is meant to be a short-term benefit

Embarrassingly, the Department for Work and Pensions has for a while seemed confused about what ESA actually is. We saw this with the recent move to cut ESA down to the rate of JSA – essentially treating some ESA claimants found “unfit for work” as if they were the opposite.

Duncan Smith did it again yesterday when he stated ESA started to fail when it was no longer a “short term benefit”. Well, not really. By its definition, the support group of ESA – that is, the group for those who has been found as having no possibility of working – is a long-term benefit. Even the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) – the group for people found unfit for work but capable of “preparing for work” – never planned to treat the long-term ill as if they had a bad dose of flu. As Declan Gaffney, analyst of the labour market and social security, points out, the person who introduced WRAG – Paul Gregg – said the typical duration was always estimated to be two years.

If Duncan Smith is wondering why many have been left to languish in the WRAG, he may want to start looking a little closer to home (see number 3, above).  

 

5. Britain spends more on “sickness benefits” than other countries

Still, pointing as far away from the problem is also a method. Anyone who’s been following the Conservative’s dismantling of the welfare state will know they have a particular favourite of this: claiming Britain is more generous towards disabled people than other nations. Yesterday, Iain Duncan Smith pulled it out again:

Some ‘scaremonger’ but ‘it is worth reflecting on the fact that we in this country spend more on sick and disabled people than the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average’.

This is the “I know we let the bedroom tax take your house but in some countries, they’d drown you at birth” strategy of political reasoning. But knowing things may be worse for someone else does little to make things better for you. And a government justifying its failings by the fact other countries are worse is not taking responsibility for what they have done. 

More to the point, it isn’t actually true. As disability campaigners were pointing out as far back as 2013 the figures the Conservatives often like to quote are ones that only refer to ‘disability spending’ – and ignore those for “sickness” (which, funnily enough, includes spending on employment and support allowance). That and the OECD average includes spending by countries such as Mexico, Chile, Greece, South Korea and Turkey. 

The Department for Work and Pensions wouldn’t distort the truth to garner support for a failing policy, would they? Stop it. You must be feeling unwell.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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