Blog Infidelity: Labour’s failings on disability

This article was posted on Left Foot Forward last Friday, and I thought I’d re-post it to the Inequalities community this week. [As this more political than usually, I’ll also put up a separate, research-based post tomorrow on the blog]. Thoughts appreciated…

In a climate of austerity where bad news is normal, the occasional rays of good news are welcome – and Wednesday’s defeat for the government over welfare reform is certainly one. Crossbenchers joined Labour peers (with abstaining Lib Dems) in crushing Lord Freud’s attempt to withdraw contributory incapacity benefits from people with cancer, those who are disabled from birth, and anyone other than the poorest who is sicker for longer than 12 months.  This was a rearguard action spurred by some fantastic disability campaigners, culminating in Monday’s #spartacus report.

But one swallow does not make a summer. The government have already announced plans to over-rule the Lords through the Commons – assuming Wednesday’s outrageous chicanery by Lord Freud comes to naught. And Labour have struggled to find a way of talking about disability that could mobilise opposition.

The most striking example of this was Ed Miliband’s ‘responsibility’ speech, which began with the story of a man who had a ‘real injury’ yet was not completely incapable of work – a man said to be representing the ‘irresponsible’ strand in society.

Why can’t Labour come up with a better narrative?

To understand what’s going on here, we need to look a bit deeper at the intellectual bedrock of Labour’s emerging welfare blueprint. This has been laid by the Fabians in The Solidarity Society (TSS) – whose lead author (Tim Horton) is now working as a senior adviser to Ed – and this part of the story runs as follows:

[In my words] The benefits system is ungenerous because it is unpopular. People consistently tell researchers that too many claimants are not really ‘deserving’, while people like them aren’t given fair rewards for playing by the rules.  The answer is to build a more generous benefits system based aroundreciprocity, where benefit payments are seen as a fair reward for contributing to the system. Unlike the old system that penalised women, reciprocity under the ‘participatory principle’ includes a broad view of contribution that includes care work.

Horton and Gregory’s analysis is a great place to start rebuilding social security – but it has two problems. Firstly, the concept of reciprocity is hardly new; for example, it was integral to Tony Blair’s attempts to ‘make the welfare state popular again’.

TSS puts forward a persuasive case for ‘good conditionality’, in contrast to the wrong form of (harsh) conditionality that cements a discourse of weeding out the undeserving. TSS catalogues this in painstaking detail, but the temptation for politicians is always to resort to headline-chasing through scrounger-bashing.

But the bigger problem is that the emphasis on reciprocity doesn’t deal with the challenges to incapacity benefits. The public are sceptical and fed an increasing diet of stories about fraud and ‘scroungers’.  Many – although not most – claimants are viewed as undeserving; in my analysis of British Social Attitudes 2007 data, people on average thought that 1 in 3 incapacity benefit claimants were claiming fraudulently. Yet in the whole of TSS, there is barely a mention of incapacity.

Labour have acquiesced to this account of fraud rather than challenged it, as Ed Miliband’s response to campaigner Kaliya Franklin at the 2011 conference made uncomfortably clear. Liam Byrne’s main criticism of the Welfare Reform Bill last weekend was therefore about cutting the contributory principle in incapacity benefits, but not the idea that too many ‘irresponsible’ people are claiming such benefits.

So what can we do?

To beat back the tide of vitriol against incapacity claimants, we can’t just keep talking about the contributory principle. At some point we have to argue that disabled people are genuinely deserving – not just that (some) people have previously paid into the system, but that disabled people’s current difficulties are only too real. Partly this means making clear that many disabilities are hidden or fluctuating; you usually know very little about exactly what your neighbour, your friend, or your family feel.

But partly we need to re-think our views of incapacity. Politicians consistently talk about people who are ‘completely incapable of work’ – but in the immortal words of Sidney Webb, this can only mean the ‘literally unconscious or asleep’. Everyone else is capable of some work (cue the endless use of the Stephen Hawking example);the question is whether work is organised in such a way that makes this possible.

And it isn’t. Employers – particularly for lower-paid jobs – are rarely willing to tolerate unpredictable absences, just because people are good workers on their good days. Minor reasonable adjustments are not uncommon, but major adjustments to the workplace are seen as ‘unreasonable’, as DWP-commissioned research makes clear; indeed, the Government has a fund (Access to Work) which implicitly is a way of funding unreasonable adjustments. In other words, the question is not about whether people are capable of work in some ideal scenario, but whether they are profitable for employers in the here-and-now.

Such ideas are not policy proposals in themselves. But they create a space in which more ambitious policy proposals can take shape – not just thewelcome focus on early workplace interventions but also sharper demands on employers to make accommodations; greater incentives for them to recruit disabled people; and both meaningful work and adequate support for people who can’t find a job that they are fit enough to do. The Fabians have started the debate, but Saturday’s Fabian conference needs to think more about incapacity if Labour are to provide a meaningful, moral alternative to the Tories on welfare.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at
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4 Responses to Blog Infidelity: Labour’s failings on disability

  1. Steve Barnes says:

    This is a very interesting post.

    Some of the areas you discuss overlap with some work that we’ve been doing in Ontario. The provincial government has established a Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, partly in response to a perception that there was significant fraud within the system.

    The Wellesley Institute (a Toronto-based non-profit and non-partisan research and policy institute) made a submission to the Commission where we argued that the welfare system needs to be made more flexible to individual need, which is particularly true for people with disabilities. Benefits need to be flexible and portable to enable people to move in and out the workforce as they are able.

    You can read our blog on this subject here: The page also includes a link to our full submission to the Commission.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for your reply Steve, and for drawing my attention to the Wellesley Institute’s report – I’ve had a quick look at it and it looks great, and I’ll try and take some time to look at it in more detail soon (particularly as I’m giving a talk in a few weeks on the links between social security and health).

      If I’ve got any questions then I’ll get in touch, and definitely let me know if the Wellesley Institute are doing any more on this.

      • Ben Baumberg says:

        I’ve now read the report – just to summarise the bit that overlaps, they talk a bit about ‘flexible and portable benefits’ that ‘recognize the complex, episodic nature of health and disability (p17-21). Their suggestions are:

        • “Continued provision of benefits until people on social assistance are firmly established in the labour market and training, and then gradual reduction;
        • “Ensuring flexible and portable benefits so people can move in and out of employment/training as they are able;
        • “Streamlining transitions between periods when people on social assistance can work and those when they are unable to work”

        All of which sounds very sensible to me. It makes me think that there are different timescales here – people who have long periods where their fluctuates on a day-to-day basis (where it would help to change jobs to be more flexible so that people can work around them), and people who move between ‘fully able to work’ and ‘fully unable to work’ on a cyclical or unpredictable basis (where these recommendations are important).

  2. Thanks for the Information. I really appreciate the efforts you have made for this post.

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