Few things are ever really new: the anti‑claimant attack

This article, by Bob Williams-Findlay (on behalf of A*CR disabled members and allies) explores the historical and current oppressive state of disabled people's rights in the United Kingdom. It critiques the ongoing stigmatization, stereotype reinforcement, and political policy changes that have resulted in cuts to welfare services, ultimately infringing on the independence and dignity of disabled individuals.

 
English translation:
60000 RM this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community during his lifetime
Comrade from among the people [Fellow citizen], that is your money, too
Read Neues Volk ([A] New People)
The monthly magazines of the Office for Race Politics of the NSDAP

English translation:

60000 RM this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community during his lifetime

Comrade from among the people [Fellow citizen], that is your money, too

Read Neues Volk ([A] New People)

The monthly magazines of the Office for Race Politics of the NSDAP

In 2016, Ruth Patrick wrote, “In the UK, a dominant narrative operates to stereotype and stigmatise out-of-work benefit claimants as inactive welfare dependents who require activation if they are to enter paid employment and behave responsibly.” (1)

History of  erosion of disabled people’s rights

The dominant narrative she refers to goes back to the policies of the Blair and Brown New Labour’s governments, and the particular actions of James Purnell, who was Work and Pensions Secretary under Brown.

The current situation for disabled people in the United Kingdom is without doubt one of the most oppressive in living memory. Many disabled people are experiencing cuts to services and social security benefits which they rely upon to live independent lives, whilst others fear that reductions in services will ultimately lead to them being forced back into residential care.

The root cause of many disabled people’s negative experiences over the two decades has been the government’s punitive reform agenda – the dismantling of the welfare state ( both benefits and services) and the promotion of self-reliance. This framework was initially developed by the Blair Labour government, then built upon by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and subsequent Cameron and May governments during the ‘age of austerity’.

This attack is however not essentially about reducing the welfare bill. Its primary focus is on making disabled people ‘disappear’ and therefore no longer be a concern for the state. This is achieved by redefining the categories imposed upon people with chronic ill health or permanent impairments to constrain the numbers falling within these. Consequently, while we have witnessed a decrease in the extent to which disabled people are presented as “dependent”, “deserving” or “vulnerable”, we have also seen a growing number of disabled people denied access to a raft of welfare services including social care and independent living because of changing and more circumscribed criteria.

In particular this more restricted ‘disability category’ is related to the neoliberal policy focus on labour market engagement and welfare-to-work. The development of these policies, the role of the mass media, and the devastating impact they had on sick and disabled claimants is well documented. (2)

The Punitive State and its allies

Debbie Jolly, a founding member of Disabled People Against Cuts, captured what lay behind these policies and the rhetoric which accompanied them when she wrote:

“When the links between the profiteers in the misery of disabled people and the ideologies of denial are exposed what we are left with? First this is not about getting people into work, whatever the Tories and previous governments claim they don’t care if you work or not. Media rhetoric on scroungers, workshy and other protestations of undeserving poor were part of the strategy to change public opinion helped along by misleading DWP press releases. This is about denying benefits, denying illness and denying incapacity. It is not about even about ‘thinking yourself well’ or tortured nonsensical models shored up by dubious academics: It’s about something Unum have a successful history of: it’s about denying pay outs and capitalising on fear and risk.” (3)

As Jolly points out, ‘Media rhetoric on scroungers, workshy and other protestations of undeserving poor were part of the strategy to change public opinion’. Not surprisingly then, Briant et al, in 2013 stated:

“Our analysis suggests that disabled people have become a ‘folk devil’ and that there has been a significant change in the way that disability is reported. Newspaper coverage in 2010/11 was less sympathetic and there was an increase in articles that focused on disability benefit and fraud, and an increase in the use of pejorative language to describe disabled people. An audience reception study suggests that this coverage is having an impact on the way that people think about disabled people.” (4)

It is not enough however to focus on the ideological backdrop or the media rhetoric, these punitive policies effect real people. Sharon Wright, Del Roy Fletcher, Alasdair B. R. Stewart undertook research where based …

“on data from a major Economic and Social Research Council‐funded qualitative longitudinal study (2014–2019), we document the suffering that unemployed claimants experienced because of harsh conditionality. We find that punitive welfare conditionality often caused symbolic and material suffering and sometimes had life‐threatening effects. We argue that a wide range of suffering induced by welfare conditionality can be understood as ‘social abuse’, including the demoralisation of the futile job‐search treadwheel and the self‐administered surveillance of the Universal Jobmatch panopticon. We identify a range of active claimant responses to state perpetrated harm, including acquiescence, adaptation, resistance, and disengagement. We conclude that punitive post‐2010 unemployment correction can be seen as a reinvention of failed historic forms of punishment for offenders.” (5)

Groundhog Day

Despite the evidence of the misery caused by the punitive polices, Frances Ryan on 30 May 2023 is able to write:

“Few things are ever really new. British politics – and the media ecosystem that maintains it – effectively regurgitates the same talking points on repeat, a kind of Groundhog Day where the key players may appear different but familiar destructive patterns are ever-present.

It is exactly a decade since former chancellor George Osborne launched cuts to the benefits system totalling tens of billions of pounds, and with them, fuelled rhetoric so toxic that it caused an increase in hate crime towards disabled people. This was the era of Benefits Street and the Sun’s Beat the Cheat campaign, where it was quite normal for a national newspaper to invite readers to report their disabled neighbours to the benefit fraud hotline.”

It is certainly Groundhog Day, and Benefits and Work explains the background to the latest media hate campaign against support group claimants. They report:

A media hate campaign against support group claimants has begun, as the government moves to abolish the work capability assessment (WCA) and allow unqualified jobcentre work coaches to decide whether claimants are capable of work. Sick and disabled claimants are even being blamed for the rise in immigration into the UK.

The lead article in the Telegraph of 24 May revealed “Millions on benefits do not have to seek work”.

The sub-headline added “Taxpayers face bankrolling payments indefinitely for 3.7 million given exemption from having to find a job.” (7)

Picking up on this Telegraph story the very next day, Channel’s 5’s The Jeremy Vine Show unleashed a vile attack using its sub-headline as bait. The TV did trigger a backlash from claimants supported by DPAC via personal testimonies that appeared on You Tube. Many took to explaining why they had been forced onto benefits; others sought to justify why they couldn’t work, etc. From within their ranks there was a clear demand for an apology from Vine and Channel 5.

While these responses are understandable, given the dominant narrative spoken about earlier, there are real dangers in trying to ‘justify’ one’s status as an individual in a toxic climate where pleas for justice can be twisted into weaponizing stereotypes of deserving and undeserving poor. It can also legitimate the furthering of the medicalisation of the benefit assessment system which would be used against claimants.

Fighting back

As disabled socialists, we understand why an apology was called for, but in our eyes this alone is not enough. We have history to demonstrate why this is the case. The type of language and rhetoric being used by the mass media echoes that used by the Nazis to justify its euthanasia programme for sick and disabled people. We witnessed how the Covid-19 pandemic was used to allow older and disabled people to die needlessly.

We believe the Telegraph aided by Channel 5 are leading a media hate campaign. They are committing a hate crime and once again putting lives at risk. The fight needs to be taken to these oppressive forces – disabled people, other claimants, trade unionists and socialists, need to launch a new campaign to defend our people.

Endnotes:

1. Patrick, Ruth (2016) Living with and responding to the 'scrounger' narrative in the UK: exploring everyday strategies of acceptance, resistance and deflection. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 24 (3). pp. 245-259.

2. Ryan, F. (2019) Crippled published by Verso

Williams-Findlay, B. (2011) Lifting the Lid on Disabled People Against Cuts

See, http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/williams-findlay-Lifting-the-Lid-on-Disabled-People-Against-Cuts-D-S-final.pdf  2011

3. Unum is a leading employee benefits provider that offers expert health and wellbeing support, and financial protection through the workplace.

4. Emma Briant, Nick Watson & Gregory Philo (2013) Reporting disability in the age of austerity: the changing face of media representation of disability and disabled people in the United Kingdom and the creation of new ‘folk devils’, Disability & Society, 28:6, 874-889,

5.  Sharon Wright, Del Roy Fletcher, Alasdair B. R. Stewart

Punitive benefit sanctions, welfare conditionality, and the social abuse of unemployed people in Britain: Transforming claimants into offenders?

March 2020 Social Policy & Administration 54(2):278-294          

See also:

Millions paid benefits without ever having to find a job

Claims have surged since face-to-face health checks were scrapped during Covid By Szu Ping Chan  and Daniel Martin, (DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR), 24 May 2023

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/05/24/millions-paid-benefits-without-ever-having-to-find-a-job/

and

How Britain’s broken benefits system created a ‘lost generation’ who no longer need to work

Plans underway to get long-term sick back in employment as Universal Credit claims climb By Szu Ping Chan, 3 June 2023 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/.../inside-battle-sick.../


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Bob Williams-Findlay has been a leading disability activist in Britain for thirty years appearing on TV and being a keynote speaker at numerous conferences. He has written numerous articles on Disability Politics and Social Oppression.

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