Tag Archives: disability

Leo McKinstry should be glad there isn’t a fit for work test for journalists. If there was, he’d fail

Over the last few months we have seen a continuous drip-feed of stories which have promoted a range of inaccurate and generalised accusations against disabled people with long term health conditions. As a result disabled people have faced greater hostility from the public, with many claiming that they have experienced hostility, discrimination and even physical attacks from strangers.”

So starts the National Union of Journalists’ opening statement on media coverage of disabled people.

Last summer, a report strongly criticised some sections of the media for the way in which they reported stories on disability benefits. Specifically, the pejorative language such as the use of terms like ‘work shy’ or ‘scrounger’. The fact that this report came, not from a ‘usual suspect’ disability charity or campaign organisation, but from the respected, cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee is an indication as to just how serious the problem has become.

The 2012 London Paralympics is a wonderful opportunity to openly celebrate disability and difference. But, a change in our social narrative is badly needed. As I have written before, disability hate crime – which itself is under-reported and often ignored by police – remains a vile and stubborn stain on our social fabric.

This goes not just for adults, but children too; a recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected.

It is worth bearing this all in mind, when you read this spiteful, professionally weak and woefully misleading article, titled, ‘The Paralympics show up a corrupt benefits system’ by Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express. It is not that Mr McKinstry’s view of the welfare state differs to mine, which vexes me most; I fully accept that people will have different views on what the role of the state should be in providing disabled and vulnerable people with financial support. It is the fact that Mr McKinstry’s tendentious argument is based on un-checked, un-picked and inaccurate assumptions; he presents fiction as fact and fact as fiction.

Let the dissection begin.

He says: “One particular target of the activists’ fury is the international firm ATOS, which, under the coalition’s new, more rigorous, benefits regime, carries out assessments to decide if individuals are fit to work and what level of support they might require.”

He is correct in so far as Atos – which, with a note of sad irony, also sponsors the Paralympic games – does conduct the government’s fit-for-work assessment, the WCA. But this is a test that is not fit for purpose. Were it fully functioning it would not have been the subject of several internal and independent reviews; nor would experts like Paul Gregg – who designed some of the welfare-to-work support packages connected to the test – have spoken out against it; nor would almost a third of those decisions that are appealed then be successfully overturned in favour of the claimant. But no matter. Let’s move on.

He writes: “[Benefit] claims have rocketed in recent decades because the system is so lax. In fact, the definition of incapacity has been remorselessly expanded to widen the scope for dependency.”

I presume he means when in 2005 the Disability Discrimination Act was expanded to include conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, cancer and HIV? So, none of these conditions could have adverse impact on a person’s ability to work or give rise to any additional costs? Right. There’s a reason you’re not a doctor, Leo.

He goes on “claims for incapacity benefit are dominated, not by the physically disabled, but by those with mental health problems like depression, stress and behavioural disorders.

Read this again. What he’s suggesting is that people with mental health issues should not be entitled to state support, or that they’re all fakers who should just snap out of it. I myself am not an expert in mental health conditions but I’m pretty sure my colleagues over at Mind and Rethink would know of some people who would take serious issue with this.

He goes on:

“In this chaotic world, it is no surprise, that the total number of people on Disability Living Allowance has gone up from 1.1 milllion in 1992, when the benefit was first introduced, to 3.2 million today…”

See what he’s done here? All he’s done is point out that the caseload for DLA (a vital benefit that acts as a contribution to the extra costs disabled people have to pay as a result of living in our society with an impairment or condition) has increased. The ‘chaotic world’ and ‘no surprise’ bits helps frame it in a way that leaves readers with the impression that the only explanation for this rise in claims for DLA must be because people are fraudulently claiming it. Not because, oh I don’t know, that it’s well established that our society is getting progressively older and disability increases with age? Or that more people with critical needs are surviving into later life? Or that medical advancements are enabling many disabled people to live longer? Or that academic research shows that survival rates of very premature babies are, thankfully, improving, which suggests the number of people born with severe disability has increased. But these things are of no consequence right?

But wait, here comes the best bit. McKinstry writes:

AND the anti-reform campaigners are in denial about the extent of this costly failure. They are fond of telling us that fraud represents just 0.5 per cent of disability claims, but that is a completely bogus figure.

In the courts there is a constant parade of cases involving serious benefits fraud, like the conviction last week of serial cheat Barry Brooks, who grabbed £1.8 million from the taxpayer by pretending to be confined to a wheelchair

First, is the claim that the 0.5% fraud rate for DLA is “bogus…” Funny that, when you consider the figure comes from – wait for it – the Department for Work and Pensions. But more to the point, his only evidence for his claim that a Government statistic is ‘bogus’ is that there have been court cases of benefits fraud brought to his attention – of which he cites just one. And even then he fails to pick a case of DLA fraud. A quick Google search of Barry Brooks shows that he was jailed for fraudulently claiming support from Access to Work, and not DLA.

Mr McKinstry, you can lambast the welfare benefits system all you like. All that I ask is that, as a journalist, you do it accurately and check your line of argument. It’s a shame there isn’t a fit for work test for journalists and social commentators. If there was, you would fail it miserably.

This article was first published on Hynd’s Blog, courtesy of Steve Hynd. Many thanks to him.


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.


The strange death of universalism

The welfare state is being demolished. Brick-by-brick. Right down to the foundations. What is left depends on the passage of the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which maps out the most radical upheaval of the benefits system for sixty years. Yet, compared to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans to restructure the NHS, the Bill has received relatively little attention in the mainstream press; it has not caused as much public outcry.

The public has never championed the welfare state the same way it does the NHS, which – a new survey shows – inspires more pride in people than other institutions like the royal family. This is because of the two systems nearly all of us will at some point have to use healthcare, but it is a much smaller number of people who come into contact with welfare. Few would object to their taxes being put towards hospitals and doctors; many more would contend that they should pay for benefits. For a lot of people, the idea of paying into a pot only for it contents to be redistributed and used by others – perhaps undeservingly so – doesn’t have them reaching for their wallets.

And so the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is born, and with it the longstanding idea of universalism – that we may all fall on hard times, one way or other, and need to draw on the welfare pot at some point in our lives – begins to die.

Research by the left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society reveals that public support for redistribution is falling. In its place, is a growing emphasis on contribution and increasing levels of concern that those claiming from the pot won’t put something back. More and more, that ‘something’ equals money. Even in the age of the ‘Big Society’ – with all the noise about volunteering and community engagement – non-work (or rather non-economic) forms of contribution are failing to be adequately valued. As recently explained by author Jenny Morris, to be ‘independent’ in this society is to be economically productive.

If the authors of the Fabian research are right, then public attitudes to benefits exert real influence over the welfare state’s development itself. Given that public appetite for a redistribution is diminishing, it is not surprising to see this reflected in politicians’ plans to overhaul the benefits system (although, one could argue these have as much to do with political ideology as they do with public opinion). More surprising is that these plans go to such extremes that even those who have worked and paid into the system are soon to find their support cut.

The fixation with economic contribution and those who are able to work, puts those who are not able to work in a precarious position. And while it is assumed that those who (*grits teeth*) are ‘genuinely’ disabled and will be recognised as being so, frequently the tests used to assess this are so critically flawed that even the people who designed them have spoken out against them.

With the Conservatives for the most part in charge (of the Department of Work & Pensions, as well as the Government), the Lib Dems have little room to manoeuvre. A recent poll for The Sun showed Clegg’s party to be polling at 9% – one point above UKIP. Yet Labour – in the midst of its soul-searching policy review exercise – appears to be moving to the right on welfare. Mindful, I’m sure, of think tanks like ippr telling his party that welfare is thought of as synonymous with dependency, and that it remains an issue that leaves Labour vulnerable, Ed Miliband is keen to appear tough on welfare – calling for a system based on values – “the value of work”.

This is an admirable aim. No-one is suggesting that families who work should not be better off than were they on benefits, or that a very small minority (which, depending on what paper you read, is a lot smaller than you might think) do abuse the system. But in a system in which the focus on economic contribution is so strong, you are either, as Morris suggests, one of two things: financially independent or so vulnerable you need to be ‘looked after’. Many disabled people fall somewhere in the middle.

A new report by Demos, commissioned by the disability charity Scope, and which is following the plight of six disabled families every six months over the course of this Parliament, shows that even families who have worked, do work or want to work; who care for and look after family members; who volunteer in their communities, are feeling the safety net snapping under them.

At a time when Labour is seeking to redefine its stance on so many issues, there is a real opportunity for a deep and wide-ranging debate on what it is we need from our welfare state; how it could be ensured that this ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is broken down, rather than entrenched; and how other forms of contribution and participation should be recognised and rewarded. With the Coalition busy demolishing the welfare state as we know it, it is up to the party that founded it, and other universalist institutions like the NHS, to defend it. You never know: one day, you might need it.


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