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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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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.