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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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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.