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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.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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