Labour’s four leadership contenders show contrasting views on disability benefits


The four candidates to be the next leader of the Labour party have revealed their thoughts about disability issues such as benefit sanctions, the “fit for work” test, and Labour’s record in government.

Concerns among many disabled activists were raised when leadership contender Andy Burnham said in May that Labour had “become associated with giving people who don’t want to help themselves an easy ride”.

One of his rivals, Yvette Cooper, suggested that Burnham had fallen into the Tory trap of “using language that stigmatises those who are not working”, including many disabled people.

Another contender, Liz Kendall, then added to concerns by stating that “voters in my constituency do not feel people who are not working should get more than those in work”, and warning that the public did not trust Labour on welfare.

Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since early last month to secure answers to key questions on disability benefits from Kendall and Burnham, and more recently from Cooper and the fourth contender, Jeremy Corbyn.

Cooper, who herself spent a period claiming incapacity benefit as a young woman, has told DNS that the use of stigmatising language “is offensive and hurtful to disabled people, and creates division in our society, exacerbating and serving to legitimise the vile threat of disability hate crime”.

She said that a Labour government under her leadership would ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service and courts “treat these crimes with the seriousness they deserve”, while she would introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime.

Asked if she would support further cuts to disability benefits, she said: “Disabled people have been hit hard by the impact of spending cuts. I will not support cuts to benefits that prevent them from living their lives with independence and dignity.”

And she made it clear that she believed the planned cut to payments for new claimants in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (ESA) – announced last week by George Osborne in his budget – was “wrong”.

She said she would work to reduce delays and errors in the benefits system, and “look at how we can bring down the cost of goods and services that are more expensive for disabled people”.

Cooper said she would also introduce a new specialist work programme for disabled people, to replace the “dismal failure of the Work Programme”.

She said she was “very concerned at the dramatic rise” in the use of benefit sanctions, including those imposed on disabled people.

She said: “While it’s right that there should be conditions for benefits, and sanctions as a backstop for wilful noncompliance, it’s quite clear that the sanctions regime in Jobcentre Plus is running out of control.”

She added: “As leader, I will always ensure that our benefits system operates fairly, proportionately and reliably, ensuring disabled people receive the benefits to which they’re entitled, and are treated with dignity and respect.”

But she insisted that Labour had been right to introduce the much-criticised ESA in October 2008, to avoid people being “abandoned on incapacity benefit”.

She said she would reform the work capability assessment, to “ensure it’s fair to disabled people”, “streamline and simplify” the process of applying for benefits, and reduce the need for “repeated and unnecessary face-to-face assessments”.

Kendall’s answers were less clear, and less detailed.

When asked if she shared Cooper’s concerns about the use of stigmatising language, she said: “No one should ever stigmatise people who have a disability. That’s against my values, against the values of the Labour party and against the values of a decent society.”  

When asked what she meant when she said that people did not trust Labour on welfare, and called for a “fundamental rethink” in its approach, she said that social security was the “foundation of a decent society”, and added: “Under the Tories, the system is failing both to help people who can work and provide decent support for those who can’t.” 

She said she would be concerned if there were any further cuts to disability benefits, and opposed those announced in last week’s budget.

She said: “Spending on ESA is now double what was projected back in 2010. The only way you save money in the welfare system is by making the system work better for people. I’d oppose any changes that didn’t deliver that.”

She said that setting targets for sanctions was “completely unacceptable”, and added: “I’d review the entire sanctions system to make sure it isn’t a disguised way to punish people for having mental or physical health problems. That’s not how social security should work.”

Kendall said that the last Labour government “did a lot of good things” for disabled people, but “didn’t do enough to help people find work or help them contribute to their family and society in other ways”. 

She said: “Now, with the cuts to social care and ever higher use of sanctions, the benefits bill is rising, but the system is failing those who want to work, by not giving them the support they need to get into work.  

“At the same time, the system isn’t doing nearly enough for those who can’t work, or need care, or who care for others. That’s just wrong.”

Corbyn implicitly criticised the language used publicly by Burnham and Kendall, although he declined to do so explicitly.

He said: “The rise in disability hate crime over recent years has undoubtedly been driven by irresponsible ministers using terms like ‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘skivers’.

“This vile, dehumanising rhetoric has no place in a serious debate about welfare and disability benefits.”

He said he had “consistently voted and campaigned against cuts to disability benefits, and will continue to do so”, and had campaigned on the issue alongside user-led grassroots groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and the WOW Petition, as well as the Unite community and PCS unions.

He also supports the long-standing call for a cumulative impact assessment of the cuts to disabled people’s benefits and services.

He was the most critical of the candidates on benefit sanctions, saying they should be completely scrapped.

He said: “Sanctions destroy the relationship between the claimant and the jobcentre adviser, which is necessary to build trust and help people identify their support needs.

“Our welfare state was established to help people, not to trip them up.

“Claimants are best-placed to recognise what is in their interests, and advisers need to be able to support them and give them options, not threats.

“Sanctions have left people in need without the support they are entitled to, in desperate poverty, and have driven some to suicide. Sanctions are barbaric and must be abolished.”

Corbyn was also the most critical of the four candidates about the last Labour government, which he said had been wrong to introduce a work capability assessment run by Atos.

He said: “Our welfare system should work with claimants to give them support tailored to their needs.

“In opposition, Labour should have changed tack and should also have opposed the closure of the Independent Living Fund. Several of us tried to make ministers see sense on this.

“We need to rebuild our welfare state as a public service there to help people in need, treating them with dignity, and respecting their autonomy.”

Burnham (pictured), the last of the four contenders to respond to the questions, said: “I strongly support disability rights and object to any depiction of disabled people as ‘scroungers’. That kind of stigmatising language is wrong and should be challenged.

“I have said that some people have had a perception that Labour was about helping people who could work to live a life on benefits instead.

“I want to challenge that perception – but I also want to make sure that we do all we can to help those who can work into work.”

And he said that cuts to disability benefits “should be a red line for our party”.

He said: “That’s why I’ve come out against the cruel abolition of the Independent Living Fund. My basic principle is that we cannot justify cuts to income that cannot be replaced by work.”

Burnham said he had “concerns” about the use of benefit sanctions.

He added: “I’m not convinced that the sanctions regime operates fairly or consistently, and the government has ignored repeated calls for an independent review of the way in which they operate. 

“There do not currently seem to be proper safeguards for vulnerable people, and some of the decisions made have been indefensible.”

He said he was “proud” of the last Labour government’s record on disability rights, increasing support for disabled people “so that those who couldn’t work and their children were pulled out of poverty, but we also increased the employment rate for disabled people by improving the support available to those who could work.

“However, in the last parliament, we didn’t do enough to defend disabled people from a range of damaging Tory policies, and under my leadership Labour will be a stronger voice for disabled people.”

  • User Ratings (32 Votes)
  • Charles Britton

    Well, its Jeremy Corbyn then ; against sanctions and the WCA.

  • Lynne Hutchinson

    So, Corbyn is the only one of the candidates prepared to vote against the proposed welfare changes, the iother three candidates want Labour to abstain. In the words of Edmund Burke, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. Is this not rather a case in point?! So much for Yvette Cooper insisting she has been there herself and will always protect the sick and disabled.

    • Tubby_Isaacs

      Corbyn’s the only one not bound by Shadow Cabinet collective responsibility.

      Burnham and Cooper have both made it clear they oppose. Once Harman’s out of the way, they’ll be able to do that.

      • Lynne Hutchinson

        Unfortunately opposing in theory is completely pointless unless you are prepared to vote with your comscience. All too late now, it got passed this evening with about 48 labour MP’s rebelling by refusing to abstain and voting against it. So thanks Andy, Liz and Yvette, your soundbites are again useless, your inaction spoke so much louder today!

        • D B Widnes UK

          Concentrate on the good side Lynne. One candidate has voted against. His actions have matched his words; which is no surprise, he has been doing that consistently now for about 30 years. I know who I will be voting for in the leadership election; and I urge all of you to consider doing the same.

      • TheSelfishAltruist

        The problem is I think Corbyn can’t be elected, so his opinions and policy ideas are basically moot.

        Kendall is the most electable to a mainstream electorate, followed by Burnham and Cooper, and then Corbyn last. Not just my opinion, but based on poll data.

        But of course, labour won’t learn this until after 2020 when the tories have a 100 seat majority and are doing what they want with the country.

    • TheSelfishAltruist

      The welfare changes don’t really affect disabled people so much, the target was wroking tax credits.

      • Lynne Hutchinson

        The proposed £30 a week reduction in ESA would be a massive hit for those diagnosed with an illness that is then classed as a disability so your statement is actually not true. Also, I do not, unlike you, class myself as a ‘selfish altruist’. Hardworking people are being hit very hard by changes in working tax credits, which totally belies the Tories pretentce that they want people to be better off in work. To ensure that, you need to sort out their wages before freezing their benefits.

  • D B Widnes UK

    One of the many things that I like so much about him, is how polite he always insists on being. But I loved the Tony Blair smackdown that day! ‘Well the big problem for Tony right now, is that he is still waiting for the publishing of the Chilcot report’!
    On the subject of who needs a heart transplant eh? Some naïve lefties? Or a war criminal maybe?

  • TheSelfishAltruist

    I don’t think we should just oppose every measure on the table that the government proposes with a broad brush. It’s just a fact many disabled people have had money thrown at them, and left on benefits for decades, without any emphasis on skills and training to help them with the dignity of working. Obviously, some people cannot work, and that’s fine, but many people on DLA and ESA etc can, and I don’t oppose measures in helping those who can, do work, such as with increased access, less stigma by employers, and developing people’s skills. I’m worried the approach to the disabled in the last 40 years or so can be summarised as “They cant work, so throw money at them”, and it has led to a lot of dependency and the abrogation of independance.

    • Lynne Hutchinson

      Do t think any disabled people would really agree that anyone is throwing money at them! I lost my nursing career due to my illness and ensuing disability. My drop in income as the main wage earner is massive to us. I can assure you, the benefits I got (but can’t anymore) would not make me think….’lets just not bother’. I worked bloody hard as a single parent to qualify and now the kids have grown up I should be spending my money on holidays and enjoying all the fun things in life instead of spending most of my time staring at my four walls.

      • Lynne Hutchinson

        Also, if you are so sure that money has stopped us all bothering to work, have the courage of your convictions and use your own name?!

        • TheSelfishAltruist

          “Do t think any disabled people would really agree that anyone is throwing money at them!”

          I would hope that individuals have their own opinions on that. Don’t you?

          • Lynne Hutchinson

            I am pretty sure that the ‘individuals with their own opinions’ that agree with you wont be disabled. The introduction of PIP has given us an even smaller and higher hoops to jump through. I have just had my home assessment and am waiting to see what the DWP decide. If I don’t qualify, the only benefit I get will be taken away, this goes on a car that is adjustable enough for me to actually be able to drive short distances, if this goes my independence will be completely taken away, as living in rural Cornwall there is no bus service where we live.

    • David Finch

      I Agree with Lynne, don’t hide if you want to make such a sweeping statement. Nobody has thrown money at me, in fact the total opposite, I have had to fight for every penny.
      And I am sorry but you are wrong, all disabled people would love to work, I worked my whole life and then one day in less than a minute I was left 60% disabled for life due to a work accident. I earned more in a day than my total benefits in a week, if I could go back to work I would love to. I hold a Masters Degree, am a Retired Military Officer (no, My accident happened in Civilian life) and have a unique skill set, however returning to work is not realistic, my condition fluctuates daily and I cannot say what days I might be able to work a few hours and what days I can’t. In regards to your ridiculous comment on dependency, due to this ridiculous new system I have lost Quality of Life, my Independence (It’s called Laughably, Personal INDEPENDENCE Payment) and am virtually house bound. This does make me better off, it makes me worse off, as I also have to fight with the depression of not being Independent and being virtually stuck in my own home.

      • TheSelfishAltruist

        I never said disabled people did not want to work. Where did I say that?

        I agreed with you, and said disabled people want to work (generally). I was pointing out that there has been successive governments who had bad policy. Just giving out money is not enough, when there more needs to be done on developing skills, ending discrimination.. etc. Most unemployed disabled people can work, in my opinion (that’s still allowed isn’t it?… opinions). I never once claimed that all were being lazy or skirting. I was saying that the opportunities haven’t been there, and the investment in the right areas. And yes, sorry if it upsets you, but in my opinion a large part of the problem is dependance due to some people being wrapped up in cotton wall to the point they wouldn’t even know how to work. Note I said PART of the problem, and said SOME people.

        I think you haven’t even made an effort to understand what I was saying if I’m honest.

        • Lynne Hutchinson

          The fraud rate on DLA was 0.5% according to the DWP’s own figures. Cutting back even further on what the disabled are expected to live on doesn’t make genuine claimants better. PIP has been designed to take disablility benefits away from 500,000 people. Do said individuals not think that this lovely Tory govt is taking a sledgehammer to a walnut? This is not about getting people back to work who can work it’s purely a financial strategy to save money by attacking the most vulnerable in our society and encouraging ‘individuals’ to think too many people are faking it. As with David, I earnt in two days what I now get a month….know any ‘individuals’ who fancy a swap? My benefits for their health? I can then get back to earning a decent living, having a decent lifestyle, an actual social life and regain my self esteem.

          • TheSelfishAltruist

            WTF has fraud got to do with anything|?