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

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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.”

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