How to improve Labour’s general approach to welfare issues

5th September, 2012 7:00 am

In theory the Work Capability Assessment should be part of a process that makes sure that people who are ill or have a disability get the right level of support they need should they wish to return to work.  That the assessments don’t get anywhere near close to this, and are in many cases actually harming the very people they should be helping, was a point made repeatedly at a packed Westminster Hall debate in Parliament yesterday. However the debate also prompted me to consider Labour’s general approach to welfare issues in Opposition and how this should be improved.

Labour’s main criticism of the Work Capability Assessment programme refers to poor management, long delays and the high number of overturned decisions. Whilst such criticisms are valid, I think we need to go much further. We need to acknowledge that the Work Capability Contract with Atos was poorly drafted and poor value for money. Under the terms of that contract, Atos receives money for the number of people they assess and process, with little to no regard for the accuracy of the results. In addition, no financial penalty is handed down to Atos when they get things wrong. Given the terrible impact an incorrect assessment will have on the life of a disabled person, this is shameful. So too is the fact that Atos gets paid for making improvements to the assessments that weren’t up to scratch in the first place. As of June this year, Atos pocketed an additional £5.47 million for implementing the changes recommended by the Harrington Review.

Labour also needs to reconsider its messages on welfare in general; particularly the primacy of the ‘tough on scroungers’ line. When that is seen by many as our only message on welfare, we have a problem. The values behind the welfare state our party created; that those that can work should do so, and those that cannot work should be supported, can get lost. ‘Tough on scroungers’ can slip easily into ‘tough on benefits’ and stigmatise whole groups of people in the process. The continuation of the ‘tough’ message is our response to polling data on attitudes towards people on out-of-work benefits, who are frequently categorised as lazy or pretending to be unable to work. If we want to be an electorally successful party, they say, then we need to look at what people think and what they want from a prospective Government. Whilst that is true to an extent, political parties do not exist just to reflect people’s attitudes back to them. Political parties should be driven by values and the New Labour obsession with polling as our primary driver needs to take a back seat whilst we look at what, and who, our party stands for ahead of the next election.

We need to remember that public attitudes are not static and ingrained beliefs; they are shaped by many factors. In the case of attitudes towards people on various out-of-work benefits, it is pretty clear that a right-wing press that loves to exaggerate and demonise welfare claimants has had a disproportionate impact in shaping views. Should Labour jump on this bandwagon and reflect it in our policies and our messages? Or should we try to shape the debate, challenge prejudices and misconceptions about out-of-work benefits and engage in political education?

People have reported ‘benefit cheats’ to me because their neighbour receives Employment and Support Allowance but doesn’t have an immediately obvious physical impairment. Explaining that not all disabilities that make people unfit to work are physical or obvious is one small action that needs to be replicated on a much larger scale. As a party we need to be educating people about illness and disability and the levels of support for people who cannot work, which are by no means generous. The huge interest in the Paralympics at the moment means this is an excellent time for Labour to consider its messages and to re-state its commitment to a welfare system that helps people instead of stigmatising them. Otherwise we may find ourselves lagging well behind a change in public opinion in light of the changing attitudes to disability that is currently sweeping the nation as they cheer on the Para Olympians whilst jeering George Osborne.

Demonising people who are on benefits is a deliberate Conservative ploy to harden public attitudes to welfare so that it’s easier to carry out the cuts and set neighbour against neighbour. The Labour party needs to restate its position on Welfare Reform by challenging the lies and mistruths and addressing the truth about the Atos contract.  It was badly drafted,  badly managed, poor value for money and causing real grinding misery to thousands of  our most vulnerable people.

Teresa Pearce is the Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead

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  • Daniel Speight

    Dear Teresa as I was a constituent of Erith and Thamesmead for a number of years please allow me to ask you an off-topic question. (On topic I think you are going in the right direction in what you are saying.)

    So back to off-topic. More than three years ago you asked three questions on LabourList and was unable to give answers to the second and third of these. Do you remember them? Here let me help.

    From May 2009:

    1) How did you win?
    2) Why did the London Region take control of the process
    3) What happened to the ballot box?

    So any news or updates on the the last two questions? Some of us are still interested. Did they ever use the lie detectors on the suspected staff? Just in case it doesn’t come through in my writing, I’m very glad you did win, both back then in the selection process and later in the last general election.

  • tim blackwell

    As a life-long Deaf person, I find this a breath of fresh air; a courageous, progressive and moral piece.

  • Oh how I agree with this,  I cannot support a Labour Party that does not stand up for the weakest in our society, after all this is what the Labour Party was founded for and is all about. I have been very distressed by their rhetoric on welfare and I’m sure this applies to many other supporters.
    I have always held Labour values but will  not vote for them again if they forget what they are all about.

    •  I totally concur, Labour should ask it self  “Who are we; Whom do we serve”?

  • I’ve never voted Labour but if I heard more sense like this I might  consider it.

  • AlanGiles

    “Demonising people who are on benefits is a deliberate
    Conservative ploy to harden public attitudes to welfare so that it’s
    easier to carry out the cuts and set neighbour against neighbour”

    Very true, Ms Pearce.  But I seem to remember certain ex-Labour ministers, including Field, doing the same thing – Field still does, Byrne is on the fence and Purnell out of Parliament.

    Sadly, ingratiating itself to the tub-thumpers who make up the readers and writers of the tabloids is a sport not just confined to the Conservatives.

    I hope when Ed Miliband has a reshuffle he considers you for DWP, as you seem to have a more balanced view than the current incumbant

  • The best way of changing people attitudes is to talk to them not at them which is the way i see a lot of politicians engaging.

  • kb32904

    Good article & finally a welcome recognition that the disabled are being massively affected by not only the incorrect decisions based on a ridiculous assessment that pays no heed to actual medical evidence but the right-wing press & the demonisation of the benefit claimants generally.

    The increase in disability hate crime should be spoken about too – it cannot be a coincidence that the huge rise has happened at the same time as we have a tory government.


    After reading the Guardians article on how ESA claimants may lose up to 71 pounds per week, I emailed Labour HQ & asked for a response. I am still waiting & frankly, thats not good enough !

    Liam Byrne appears to nod in agreement with whatever the tories say yet we get his speech on the Beveridge Report that says Labour will be supporting the sick & disabled. Well HELLOOOOOO, we’re still waiting !

    As for Frank Field – don’t get me started !!

  • PaulTreloar1

    What a refreshing point of view to see from Labour and one I wholeheartedly agree with. A good start point for this debate, within the context of localism in particular, could be reviving some of the arguments about the financial benefits to local economies of ensuring the proper take-up of social security entitlements.

    There has been academic research done in the past, in Kirkless and Glasgow for example, which has demonstrated how enabling local residents to understand and properly claim their entitlements, often through take-up campaigns and adequate provision of independent advice services, sees demonstrable uplifts in both the money circulating in a local area, and in knock-in employment rates as a result.

  • Teresa Pearce is right to warn against demonisation but being “tough on welfare” does not necessarily mean being anti-claimant. The welfare state and the welfare state was built to protect people from the Five Giant Evils – squalor, idleness, disease, want and idleness. This idea of ‘education’ however is right in principle but gives a ‘nanny state’ impression which would put people off. I think if the Labour Party’s position on welfare reform was simply to educate the public about disabilities, we’d look rather stupid. We need to engage with people and look at what people need and want and what they don’t want and how people can obey their responsibilities as well as taking advantage of their rights. It works both ways.

  • pilipali

    The Blair government started the process of outsourcing what used to be in house DWP functions, such as assessing sick claimants, and the Party has to bear some responsibility for the marketisation of the social sercurity system, whereby  charlatans are profiting from human misery. So an admission that this was a mistake will go a long way in convincing many disenfranchised/ill/disabled/vulnerable/poor people that Labour is the Party to stand up for them. At present no one appears to be, and there is a huge amount of anger directed at Labour for this – no one expects anything different from the Tories. So an apology and fresh start on welfare is what needs to be heard. Among Party members an adult grown up debate about what welfare means, and what we would like  to see, without using tabloid language please. I’m sick of spending time in GC debating nonsense consultation documents written by clever dicks who don’t seem to understand the nuances of the (very complicated) benefit system.   

    • kb32904

      Great comment & I for one heartily concur.

      I have no idea what GC is but I totally understand about people not understanding the nuances of the benefit system & lets face it, the tories & the media deliberately ensure people remain confused about it – look at how many people are ignorant of the difference between ESA & DLA (that someone can be entitled to both simply blows their brains)

      The whole sickness / disability debate needs to had & soon – there are thousands of potential voters who refuse to vote Labour because of their lack of support for the ill & that surely is a dreadful indictment of New Labour & one I hope Ed M agrees is desperately in need of overturning.

      The WCA is flawed & it requires a strong government to overhaul it. The promise to do so would gain the vote of thousands.

      Take that step Ed – don’t be afraid !

      • pilipali

        KB32904, sorry for the jargon – GC is General Committee, where local Labour Party members meet to discuss policy at local and national level.  Another thing I’d add to my ranty statement above (I’ve calmed down a bit now)  is that the national leadership could learn a lot from the Labour led Welsh Government, where ministers are not afraid to speak out about the impact of the coaliton’s welfare reform policy on the most vulnerable, without resorting to Mailspeak. I have never heard a Welsh govt minister use this kind of language. The focus is very much on protecting the most vulnerable, and also linking health,  education, social justice etc with a humane welfare safety net.  This provides a model for discourse. All of this is completely ignored by the LP nationally. 

  • What you said is right, but its what you have not said that is a problem.
    The torys, when not in government were going to be the careing party.
    So why should we expect labour or lib dems to be any differnet when you find yourselfs in government again ????

  •  ‘Under the terms of that contract, Atos receives money for the number of people they assess and process, with little to no regard for the accuracy of the results. In addition, no financial penalty is handed down to Atos when they get things wrong.’
    If this is true, it’s pretty shocking. It should be obvious to anyone involved with these sort of contracts that every adverse outcome must be identified and covered. If not, the private sector gets the cash and the public sector keeps the risk.

  • Brumanuensis

    I cannot emphasise how much I agree with this piece. If we want to be truly ‘brave’, in a political sense, we would indeed be “Explaining that not all disabilities that make people unfit to work are physical or obvious is one small action that needs to be replicated on a much larger scale. As a party we need to be educating people about illness and disability and the levels of support for people who cannot work, which are by no means generous”. Not the pseudo-bravery of being ‘tough’ on ‘scroungers’, which is in fact the lowest form of cowardice imaginable.

  • peteyvv

    ATOS have been handed free money with such a contract. No financial penalty for appeals? Utter stupidity

  • HannahSnow

    I’m sincerely glad you’re my MP Teresa and I hope the leadership of the Labour Party takes your advice into account. At present, people with disabilities, such as my son, diagnosed with schizophrenia, face a very bumpy ride in a life already made difficult by a lifelong and, at times, terrifying illness. The DWP/Atos assessments are cruel and Dickensian. As Zoe Williams wrote earliert today, “We know that Atos requires no mental health training from its assessors, has no specific test for the mentally ill, and takes no account of fluctuating conditions; so that’s a discrimination case waiting to happen”. Thank you for standing up for those who are unable to do so for themselves.

  • Carole Rutherford

    Miliband makes the right noises without giving any real detail as to how he will ensure that Labour do something about the WCA when you talk to him.

    I personally need to see it splashed all over the papers in the same way that we read all about people with disabilities being scroungers before I will believe that he really will do anything.

    Saying that Labour will have to ‘look’ at this assessment is not enough. I have to look at the clock so that I know what time it is, but looking at the clock does not change the way in which the clock functions.

    As an ardent campaigner for the autism community I have met with most of the Labour who have anything to do with disability now and Ed himself. They certainly know how the WCA is affecting people with autism.

    Jon Cruddas has been the only one that I have met so far who appears to understand just how wrong Labour got it when they introduced this assessment. Great to read Teresa Pearce and what she thinks about the assessment and how the press have demonised people with disabilities. Living with autism times two really does make you aware of how ‘normal’ someone with a disability that impacts on every part of their lives can look. Now all we need is for other Labour MPs to start saying the same thing. Blue Labour holds no appeal for me and it will not secure my membership fees.

  • Pingback: Labour being tough on welfare isn’t necessarily ‘demonisation’ | Liberal Conspiracy()


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