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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: Scope is aiming at the wrong target over sickness benefits

First, here's my summer pledge to readers. For the next three weeks, this Wednesday column will be an Olympic-free zone. At whatever cost to personal ingenuity, and however hard I have to search for news with absolutely no Olympic-related content, I promise to provide you with a short respite from London 2012 fever. I do not propose to offer you my opinion on the significance of the Games or any of its national, international, political or cultural implications. I simply intend to avoid the topic entirely.

I acknowledge that this pledge carries risks. It may cause a severe dip in Wednesday traffic to this corner of the site. My editors may call me with harsh words about my failure to connect with the zeitgeist. Perhaps the comments will dry up completely and I will be forced to accept that having nothing to say about London 2012, combined with wilful exclusion of all sporting metaphors, will leave me high and dry, talking to myself. So be it. If you have been able to read this far, it seems that I have been granted sufficient editorial licence to proceed with this endeavour. Stay with me a little longer (preferably for the next three weeks) and I will do my best to provoke or enlighten you.

The non-Olympic news item that has caught my eye this week is the attack by disability charity Scope on the government's welfare reforms. Scope has issued a press release publicising the results of its recent poll showing that disabled people feel discrimination against them has increased.

Of the 393 disabled people interviewed by ComRes in December 2011, 46% said they felt that attitudes towards them had worsened in the past year. There were surprisingly large regional variations in this sample figure, and strikingly uneven responses across age groups, so the results should be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, the poll does not appear to reflect well on UK attitudes towards disability and it is therefore important to ask why negative perceptions seem to persist.

Scope blames the government, and specifically attacks government rhetoric on welfare reform. The charity's Chief Executive Richard Hawkes says “It is telling that these figures come as the Government continues to put the issue of weeding out illegitimate claimants at the heart of its welfare rhetoric.” He singles out a headline from last week's Daily Express, highlighting DWP figures showing 75% of sickness benefit claimants have been found fit to work. Hawkes believes such headlines imply that disabled people are benefit scroungers and that this “negativity” makes it harder for disabled people to get on with their lives. In “promoting” the data which gives rise to such headlines, Mr Hawkes believes Chris Grayling and others are encouraging people to believe that the disabled are a bunch of scroungers.

Scope stops short of attacking the welfare reforms in their entirety, simply asking the government to “tell the whole story when it comes to stats.” Yet whichever way you tell it, the huge expansion of incapacity benefit is a story worth laying before the public. In 2010 2.6million people were claiming the benefit, worth up to £25 more every week than jobseeker's allowance. Nearly 500,000 of these cited depression or anxiety as their reason for being unable to work; another 168,000 blamed back pain, 77,000 cited drug abuse.

In attacking the government for highlighting these figures, Scope is surely aiming at the wrong target; blaming the messenger rather than acknowledging the faults in the system. The wide availability of incapacity benefits to people who are not suffering from disability has been extremely harmful to the interests of those who are genuinely incapable and who rely on state support to enable them to carry out everyday tasks. Indeed, the Scope survey later admits this, noting that the most important reason for negative attitudes towards the disabled is “People claiming benefits when they are not disabled.”

It's not hard to think of other examples of this “crying wolf” effect. The able-bodied driver who wangles a blue badge, or who “borrows” one from a family member, causes other motorists to look less kindly on those displaying the badge, making life harder for drivers who really cannot walk unaided. Labelling a fifth of all schoolchildren as having Special Educational Needs means that the (much smaller) number of autistic, physically impaired or handicapped pupils do not get the resources their conditions merit. The wider the definition of disability, the greater the scope for abuse, as well as the likelihood of compassion fatigue.

The government thus deserves credit for seeking to distinguish between different categories of benefit recipient and to curtail welfare abuse. Not every fitness assessment will be the right one, but a welfare system that categorised more than 7% of working-age adults as too disabled to be employed was clearly overdue for scrutiny. Instead of seeking to whip up resentment of welfare reform, disability charities like Scope should be welcoming the government's attempts to differentiate. Because the best way to restore public confidence in the welfare system is to ensure that it cannot be abused.


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