Tag Archives: welfare

A New Social Narrative

Amid a mass of measures – unemployment statistics, credit ratings, borrowing figures – with which a Government’s performance can be evaluated, one test in particular stands out. For any action undertaken by Government, English philosopher T.H. Green proposed, one should ask: “does it liberate individuals by increasing their self-reliance or their ability to add to human progress?”

The Coalition is fixated with self-reliance; individual personal responsibility is the lifeblood of conservatism. References to that familiar and yet vague group – people “who do the right thing” – pepper the Prime Minister’s speeches. The best example of putting this principle into practice is undoubtedly the benefits system – specifically, disability benefits. Within months of coming to power, the Coalition set out £18 billion worth of welfare cuts. At the time of writing, calls to cut another £10 billion have got louder. Witnessing the Government undertake its welfare reform agenda has felt akin to seeing youths rush, rob and strip an elderly man – once a respected by his contemporaries, now chastised and marginalised by his community – all the while watching from a distance, powerless to stop it.

Few would argue that the Coalition’s rapid unravelling of the welfare safety net will not increase self-reliance. But it is the second part of Green’s test – whether it increases a person’s ability to add to human progress – that is the most important. And it is in this respect that, for disabled people across the country, the Government is set to spectacularly fail.

It is when we begin to really unpick the Government’s welfare reform agenda that the callousness of it is fully revealed. The Coalition is set to cut benefits for disabled children. It distracted attention from other reforms by proposing to cut a benefit that helps care home residents get out in their community (certainly a tactical device, this plan was later dropped but its very suggestion is indicative). Come next year and support provided to disabled people with complex needs with no adult to care for them will no longer exist. Emergency payments for families in dire crisis – including disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence – could be replaced with supermarket store cards – vouchers for the destitute. Plans to increase a person’s self-reliance look very different when that person is a mother – perhaps with children in tow – escaping a violent partner.

A recent report by disability charity Scope and the think tank Demos reveals the profound impact that the cuts are having on disabled people. For the last two years, they have followed the plight of six disabled families as the cuts have come into effect, and have documented declining mental health, increased fear and anxiety; financial instability and a desperate struggle to make ends meet. One family, an elderly couple were left without money to fix their broken windows for almost a year – using towels to keep out the cold and rain. It is stories like his that shows – with startling clarity – the true human cost of austerity.

The argument put forth by MPs and Ministers alike that it is better to work than languish on benefits is solid. Nobody wants to squander their potential. But, here the narrative fuelled by politicians and the press is often toxic and frequently fails to show the whole picture.

First, it is often assumed that benefit recipients make the choice not to work. “For choice to be real”, authors Richard Reeves and Phil Collins state, “there has to be a range of options.” It would be naïve to deny the existence of some who do actively choose not to work, but so too are there many disabled who desperately want a job but are unable to secure and maintain employment.

The second assumption is that for those who are less able to work, this must be due to the limitations imposed upon their body and mind. To the public this may seem entirely reasonable, but it overlooks the crucial interaction between impairment and society. The ‘social model’ of disability sets out how practical and environmental barriers render people with impairments ‘disabled’. Many disabled people find ways to manage their condition, but still face real social barriers – inaccessible transport, unsuitable housing, social isolation, discrimination – that prevent them from working and leading the lives they value.

Finally, these problems are compounded by the lack of jobs in the midst of a double-dip recession. There are over 2.5 million people unemployed. It is against this hostile, competitive backdrop that the Government recently confirmed the closure of 27 Remploy factories that employ disabled workers. There are good arguments for ending sheltered working; it is not conducive to the ‘mainstreaming’ of disability our society badly needs. But the choice of timing is poor and charities have expressed real concerns about the level of support that former workers will receive. The Government’s woeful lack of tact here was illustrated by the contemptuous comments of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who remarked that Remploy staff – who provide equipment to our police and armed forces – were “not doing any work…just making cups of coffee.”

Above all this, however, is an issue vastly more important than any benefit or work programme: our social narrative. It is becoming worrying venomous. Much of the tone is set by our media – sections of which were lambasted by a cross-party Select Committee for the “irresponsible” use of “pejorative language” like ‘work-shy’ and ‘scrounger’. Major disability charities warn that the Government’s focus on alleged fraud (and it is alleged – the benefit Disability Living Allowance has a fraud rate of 0.5%) to justify welfare cuts has caused an increase in abuse directed at disabled people. Many disabled people have said they are taunted in the street about ‘faking it’ and are concerned this Salem-like climate of suspicion might result in violence. A recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected. Experts have warned that disability hate crime remains under-reported and often ignored by police. This is not the atmosphere in which we can prevent another tragic story like Fiona Pilkington, who, after years of abuse from local youths, killed herself and her disabled daughter. 

There is a desperate need for a new narrative in our society – a new, serious and in depth discussion about the role of the state in supporting disabled people to become self-reliant, exercise their capabilities to lead the lives they value and add to human progress. Politicians of all colours have failed to stem the poisonous tide that is now saturating our social fabric. Further retrenchment of the state will only raise these water levels higher. Distinguished disability campaigner Jenny Morris is right when she says that we need a value system which values diversity and in which disabled people are treated as belonging and contributing to their communities. Which politicians, and of which party, have the bravery to stand up and say this remains to be seen. But it can happen. Even with further cuts still to come, we must remain hopeful. As the deafblind radical Helen Keller once said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.”

 

This article first appeared in The Occupied TimesAugust 2012. With thanks to Michael Richmond and his team.


Why Labour cannot rely on Anti-Tory votes alone

“Compassionate Conservatism is dead. Contemptuous Conservatism has taken its place,” declared Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and, until recently, coordinator of Labour’s policy review (a small-scale reshuffle by Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, resulted in Byrne being taken off this brief and replaced with Jon Cruddas).

Byrne’s statement came in the midst of his second Beveridge lecture, entitled ‘Making Rights a Reality for Disabled People’, hosted by the independent think tank Demos. Byrne used the speech as an opportunity to provide a lesson in history and philosophy – taking his audience on a journey through post-Second World War Britain and the creation of the welfare state – “one of the greatest achievements of British civilisation.”

He set out Labour’s commitment to universal welfare provision and full employment. Full employment, he suggested, would allow for a more generous welfare state with universal benefits. Key to this achieving this aim will be supporting more disabled people into employment. Ultimately, this ties into a strategy that centres on people’s ‘capabilities’ – an approach Byrne adopted from the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen. Rather than focus on people’s limitations, a capabilities approach looks at what people need to live the types of lives they value.

Byrne did not waste the chance to slam the Government either. Had a Labour Minister made the same comments as Work and Pensions Secretary and former Conservative Party Leader, Iain Duncan Smith – who recently claimed that disabled employees in Remploy factories were “not doing any work at all…just making cups of coffee” – they would have been sacked, Byrne asserted. The Government “have quite simply crossed the threshold of decency.”

No doubt many would agree with such an assessment of a Government that is cutting benefits for disabled children and destabilising the future of emergency payments for women who have escaped domestic violence. As Claudia Wood, Deputy Director of Demos, rightly points out: quoting philosophers and economists like Sen and Martha Nussbaum is all well and good, but what people really want to know is what would Labour do differently? When asked what policies in the Welfare Reform Act, which became law in March 2012 and sets out many highly controversial policies like the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Labour would reverse, Byrne stopped short of giving such details – at least until the next election, he responded.

In the meantime, he and others will be “taking evidence around the country from people with disabilities, from carers, from campaigners, from public service and business leaders about how we renew the universal in the universal welfare state by turning rights into reality.” In other words: a listening exercise (hopefully, one more effective than that carried out Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, seeking – and failing – to convince the country of the merits of the Government’s NHS upheaval).

Disability activists and campaigners following the speech on Twitter celebrated Byrne’s announcement of a co-produced policy review. Editor of the popular Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal, asked: ‘Has Liam Byrne discovered his conscience over disability benefits?” One of the authors of the excellent Spartacus Report – which just a few months ago spread across the Twitter-sphere like wildfire after exposing the Government’s staggering dismissal of highly critical responses to a public consultation on a key disability benefit – hailed it as “a huge significant shift”.

The prospect of Labour carrying out a co-produced policy review, with disabled people’s voices at the centre of it, is indeed a most welcome development and the praise outlined above is rightly placed. However, it should be taken with a pinch, if not several handfuls, of salt for a few reasons. First, because there is already a wealth of information – including the Spartacus Report and Demos’s own series, Destination Unknown – out there detailing the real life impact of the cuts on disabled people and their families. Second, because Labour is already more than a year and half into the policy review and seem to have surprisingly little to offer. In some areas, Ed Miliband’s famous “blank piece of paper” is, eighteen months later, still blank.

Third, and most worryingly, is the thought that Labour believes they don’t actually need policy details. Not yet, anyway. As the recent council elections showed, people are turning to Ed Miliband’s party in their droves. At the time of writing, the polling company YouGov put the Opposition 11 points ahead of the Conservatives; almost two thirds of people disapprove of the Government’s record to date; 63% think David Cameron is doing badly as Prime Minister. With over a third of people worried that they could lose their job in the next year, it would seem that the Government’s own programme of austerity is turning people against them, and towards Labour.

Before Ed Miliband’s election as party leader, a friend and I argued over the two contenders’ credentials as leader of the opposition. At the time, I supported Ed and he David. His main concern was this: that should Ed be elected, he would bury himself in policy reviews and similar soul-searching exercises and, as a consequence, could not become the credible and vocal opponent of the Government’s ideologically-driven cuts that the people needed. The strategy would be to rely on anti-Government – and not actively pro-Labour – sentiments driving people into the Opposition’s arms. Eighteen months later and Labour might be enjoying a big boost in the polls, but more than half the public think that Ed Miliband is doing a bad job; a similar figure say that Labour cannot be trusted to run the economy.

Welfare is a particularly tricky area for Labour; reform of the benefits system is popular with the voters and Labour needs to show where they would get the money to fund alternatives they come up with. But the Government has also had much to do with turning public opinion against the welfare system; a well-planned programme of selective media briefings have fuelled the poisonous ‘scrounger’ and ‘workshy’ rhetoric that is now so widespread in many popular newspapers. A key task for Labour will be to shift this narrative and challenge media-fuelled assumptions that disability benefits are rife with fraud (the Government’s own statistics show that DLA has a fraud rate of 0.5%).

Relying on anti-cuts/Conservative/Government opposition makes sense, strategically. Why go out to voters if you can get them to come to you? But without an answer to the question ‘What would Labour do?’, and soon, Byrne et al will fail to provide an articulate and meaningful challenge as the Government sets about dismembering the very welfare state Beveridge created all those years ago.


Show us the money

In the early episodes of David Simon’s hit TV series, The Wire, Lester Freamon, a methodical and paternal veteran of Baltimore’s Major Crimes Unit, explains to his team the rationale behind his way of working: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f*** it’s gonna take you.”

At a time when the Coalition Government is aiming both to become the most transparent administration in the world and to inflict the deepest cuts to public spending since World War Two, trying to trace the money for new initiatives proves no easy task. Just last week the Government made two announcements: a U-turn on plans to cut a benefit that helps disabled people in residential care get out in their communities (a cut so callous some – this author included – thought it was probably only suggested in the first place to distract campaigners’ attention from other regressive reforms); and the establishment of a £1 billion ‘Youth Contract’ scheme to help deal with the highest youth unemployment levels since 1986.

The similarity between these two announcements is that nobody yet knows where the money has come from to fund them (or, in the case of the U-turn, to make up for the £135 million that would have been ‘saved’ had the Government persisted with its plan). Such ambiguity makes it hard to commend what would otherwise be welcome announcements, while also trying to figure out what cuts were made elsewhere to fund such decisions.

The Youth Contract is a particular case in point, for it is very similar to a scheme that was already in place, and proving successful, when the Coalition was formed. That scheme was the Future Jobs Fund – introduced in 2009 to create subsidised jobs for unemployed 18-24 year-olds. The Government’s own study shows that, overall, the FJF succeeded in preparing young people for work and that many of those who participated in the scheme reported “a significant improvement in self confidence” and “a positive change in aspirations and motivation to pursue their job goals”. Among those now employed many are convinced the FJF played a vital role in enabling them to find work.

Shortly after its formation in 2010, the Coalition Government decided to cut the FJF and then, barely more than a year after its Spending Review, to recreate it again – only this time offering wage subsidies to private sector employers (under the FJF any organisation from public, private or voluntary and community sectors was eligible to bid). The Youth Contract is comprised of 160,000 wage subsidies; 250,000 work experience placements, and 20,000 ‘incentive payments’ aimed at getting employers to take on young apprentices.

The new scheme will cost £1 billion, but it is not clear as to where this money come from. Officials are reported to have said that the funding comes from ‘other areas’ of government spending (assumed by some to translate to an even tighter squeeze on welfare budgets).

The money mystery doesn’t end with the funding of the project; it permeates much of the Government’s wider approach to tackling unemployment – via its welfare-to-work scheme: the Work Programme. Launched this summer, this operates on a payment by results basis: contracted organisations are paid depending on the length of time their client stays in work, and what out-of-work benefit they have moved off. Such is the Government’s faith in the Work Programme that once in office it saw fit to end all existing back-to-work schemes (including the FJF) and replace them with a single scheme. However, how successful it is and how much the providers are paid remains to be seen, as the Government won’t publish the results until Autumn 2012.

If the Government is to achieve its aim of being the most open administration in the world, then it needs to show – especially in an age of austerity – where the money for schemes like the Youth Contract really comes from. If its faith in the Work Programme is such that it can cut all existing – and successful – initiatives like the Future Jobs Fund (and even then still spend more money recreating it) it needs to show what rewards are going to whom, and for what. We need to be able to follow the money.


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