Ben Baumberg is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, and co-editor of the blog Inequalities
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:
“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 around reciprocity, 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 the welcome 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.
• “Demonising the government”: Sue Marsh v Chris Grayling (and Emily Maitlis) - Alex Hern, January 13th 2012
• Welfare reform bill in tatters after Lords defeats - Shamik Das, January 12th 2012
• Children’s commissioner slams welfare bill - Alex Hern, January 11th 2012
• Everyone concerned about welfare reform needs to step up to the mark - Declan Gaffney, January 10th 2012
• Disability minister ignorant on how legal aid cuts affecting disabled people - Alex Hern, January 10th 2012