Conservative ministers have used their party conference to ramp up rhetoric that blames disabled people on out-of-work benefits for the country’s economic problems, just as they did in the post-2010 coalition government.
Following months of media articles highlighting the growth in the number of disabled people on out-of-work benefits, many of which were criticised for demonising and scapegoating disabled people, prime minister Rishi Sunak yesterday (Wednesday) told the country in his main conference speech that “welfare” should be “a safety net and not a way of life”.
He said that supporting so many disabled people on out-of-work benefits was “not good for our economy” and “not fair on taxpayers who have to pick up the bill”, and he called it a “national scandal”.
He also became the latest member of the government to compare the proportion of those now found not fit for work (65 per cent) after an assessment with the same figures in 2011 (21 per cent).
Like his fellow ministers, and many media commentators, he has ignored the fact that the 2011 figures reflected the early years of the work capability assessment (WCA), before its most serious flaws were exposed.
It took years of activism and research by disabled people and allies to expose the links between the WCA and hundreds, and probably thousands, of deaths of claimants, and to force DWP ministers to ease the harshness of the assessment.
That eventually made it easier to qualify for the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group and avoid work-related conditions, although the test continues to be linked to serious harm and multiple deaths.
But Sunak was not the only senior member of his government to target disabled people in Manchester this week.
On Monday, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, spoke of 100,000 people leaving work every year “for a life on benefits”.
He was referring to the number of people leaving work and being found to have limited capability for work-related activity (LCWRA) after being put through the WCA.
He told the conference that this was the reason work and pensions secretary Mel Stride was scrapping the WCA.
Hunt said he was “proud to live in a country where, as Churchill said, there’s a ladder everyone can climb but also a safety net below which no one falls”, before adding: “That safety net is paid from tax.”
The words of Sunak and Hunt closely mirror the hostile rhetoric of Conservative politicians such as David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne in the coalition years.
In a notorious conference speech in 2012, Osborne, the chancellor at the time, talked about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.
At the 2011 conference, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said that incapacity benefit was “too often abused as an excuse for avoiding work”.
And in October 2010, prime minister David Cameron told the party conference: “If you really cannot work, we will always look after you.
“But if you can work, and refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.”
Disability Rights UK warned this week of “language that is harmful and potentially destructive to those who rely on the benefit system because they have no other option due to a disability or long term health condition” and called on the government to “stop demonising people”.
It added: “It seems that disabled people and those with long term health conditions are being used as scapegoats.”
When Disability News Service asked the minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, if he supported Hunt’s comments, he did not appear to be aware of them.
Speaking only 75 minutes before Hunt was due to take the stage to make his speech – which had been trailed over the weekend by the party press office – Pursglove said he had not seen the speech and had “literally just arrived at conference”.
Asked what he felt about the comments, Pursglove said he would not “prejudge” them, but would comment if DNS emailed him after the speech.
DNS emailed Pursglove after the speech, as requested, but he failed to respond by the deadline.
The advance briefings of Hunt’s speech led to news stories in the right-wing media that echoed those of the early 2010s, with the Daily Mail pointing to the figure of 100,000 disabled people leaving work to claim disability benefits and claiming that Hunt would “declare war on 100,000 work-shy benefit claimants”.
The Sun’s headline was “Shirkin class blitzed”, as it said Hunt would “crack down on benefits claimants refusing to find a job as 100,000 people leave the workforce each year for a life on handouts”.
The Daily Express quoted a “senior Tory source” saying Hunt would “turn the screw” on people who refused to work.
Pursglove was challenged about the use of hostile rhetoric at a fringe event organised by the disability charity Scope.
Louise Rubin, Scope’s head of policy and campaigns, told him: “In the context of what we have heard over the last few days, there has without a doubt been an increase in the often unpleasant rhetoric about benefits creeping back in over the last few weeks and months.
“Articles about clamping down on scroungers, making it much harder to apply for benefits… we are not here to discuss benefits today, but it does seem to us here at Scope rather misguided to put all of the attention on forcing unwell people back to work, using sticks, but to pay little attention to supporting those who are already in work.”
Stride had spoken of the same 100,000 people referred to by Hunt in his conference speech at a fringe event hosted by the Resolution Foundation on Sunday.
He agreed there needed to be “some more study” into the reasons for the increase in the number of those receiving long-term sickness and disability benefits over the past four years, but he made no pledge to carry out that research.
Instead, he insisted he was still ploughing ahead with reforms that will make it significantly harder – if the Conservatives win the next election – for many disabled people to secure the highest rate of support and avoid being forced to carry out work-related activity.
Last week, DNS reported that the Department for Work and Pensions had admitted making no attempt to research why spending on out-of-work disability benefits had risen significantly in recent years, despite planning its “horrendously dangerous” cuts.
But Stride suggested some possible reasons for the increase.
He said an increase in the state retirement age was tipping more older people into the LCWRA group, while increasing numbers working from home might be playing a part in an increase in musculoskeletal injuries.
But he particularly focused on mental health and younger people.
He suggested the increasing use of social media might be responsible for an increase in mental distress among younger people, while he also claimed that the trend towards greater discussion of mental health issues meant there could be “an element of a more extensive labelling of people having a mental health issue perhaps in a way that might not have happened 20 years ago”.
He repeated this claim at another fringe event on Tuesday, again without quoting any evidence, saying there was “a question mark to what degree are we too readily identifying individuals [as having a mental health condition] and then consequently doing various things as a result of that… it’s a question mark in my mind”.
Picture: Jeremy Hunt (left) and Rishi Sunak speaking at the Conservative conference in Manchester
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