Are UK Welfare Reforms a Form of Hate or Hate Crime Conducted Towards Disability?
Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: Paul Dodenhoff: Bio
Published: 2020-02-18 : (Rev. 2020-04-20)
Synopsis and Key Points:
Paul Dodenhoff writes on disability hate crime and a possible sensitive and controversial issue amongst disability organisations and campaign groups.
Hate crime committed against disabled people is as old as the hills, so it is not a new phenomenon and it is therefore not caused by one political party or another - nor any government.
Politicians are as prejudiced as the rest of us, they are only human after all and arguably come armed with a variety of human foibles.
I thought long and hard before deciding to write this piece as it can be a bit of a controversial issue amongst disability organisations and campaign groups - all with a different take on it. But it is a question that has undoubtedly been asked to me on countless occasions by individual disabled people - and for a number of years.
For sure, some disabled people indeed feel they have been specifically targeted by government, abused by the system because of their identity, humiliated by the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and some people placed under so much distress and anguish that they committed suicide over it. Even state coroners have raised concern to government over the WCA and subsequent suicides. Disabled people themselves have often felt isolated and marginalised from society, sometimes facing humiliation, cruelty and physical pain during assessment. So, all in all, the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of government welfare reform are not dissimilar to the consequences of hate crimes committed towards disabled people.
However, it might be wise at the moment to still treat hate crimes committed against disability; discrimination over employment or housing; and UK welfare reforms as three different and completely separate entities. One certainly doesn't cause the other and it may muddy the waters by adding extra complexity onto an already highly complex topic by linking all of them together. It could also undermine the campaign against 'hate crime' by claims that we are 'politicising' it. Something we should never attempt to do.
Hate crime committed against disabled people is as old as the hills, so it is not a new phenomenon and it is therefore not caused by one political party or another - nor any government. But that is not to say that our politicians and our toxic media cannot and do not exasperate the problem. Of course they can and of course, they do. You can visible trace the political and social rhetoric against begging, vagrancy, laziness, malingering and deviancy in almost every decade - for hundreds of years. There is also evidence to suggest that negative political rhetoric or sensational media coverage of a topic can indeed cause 'spikes' in hate crimes. Something the United Nations even highlighted after the EU referendum in 2016:
"British politicians helped fuel a steep rise in racist hate crimes during and after the EU referendum campaign".
(UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination, August 2016)
There was even an 'spike' in disability hate crime soon after the EU referendum, although that may itself be linked to other factors such as better police reporting and better recording of numbers. However, we don't know that for certain and it is clear that some disabled people felt that the EU referendum result was a validation for all manner of obnoxious and vile beliefs.
But yes, for disabled people, they feel the state is currently ganging up on them and committing 'hate' against them - and targeted solely because of their identity of being a disabled person. Something that makes them 'deviant' if they not able to work because of that disability. In other words, 'unproductive' and 'economically inactive' in the eyes of the powers that be and inactive in a political world where 'work ethic' is sacrosanct. Some have indeed complained to me, that they been portrayed to the British public by both politicians and the media as primarily being a bunch of scroungers, fakes and malingers.
We only need to refer back to the tremendous suffering of the Jewish community in Nazi Germany to see how 'politics' can indeed instigate, promote and generate hate, animosity and eventually, the wholescale murder of millions of ordinary, completely innocent people. So, if there is a line to be drawn between hate and politics, it will arguably always be a very thin one. History sadly teaches us that lesson. Therefore, we should not be afraid in having any discussion where we dare to mention politics and hate or hate crimes in the same breath. Politicians are as prejudiced as the rest of us, they are only human after all and arguably come armed with a variety of human foibles.
Especially as we still don't know for sure what causes hate crime and in particular, hate crimes committed against disabled people. Sure, most of us still pin the cause as being primarily motivated by prejudice and bias towards those who are perceived as being 'different' in some way - or even feared. Of course, that actually doesn't tell us much about 'why' some people feel that way or motivated to do something about it. Similarly, we could argue that discrimination may just be the other face of hate crime, the other side of the coin that is also driven by prejudice and bias.
But what about welfare reform? After all, UK welfare reform is driven by that dreaded phenomena - 'politics'. So, it can't be prejudice? I've argued for quite a while that UK welfare reform is indeed driven largely by political arguments surrounding an eroded 'work ethic' and that state welfare only encourages laziness, dependency and deviancy. Some politicians have even argued that you can even earn more from welfare benefits than by working.
Certainly in my experience, trying to get money off the state is much harder than trying to extract blood from a stone. That's the reality. Although, I do recognise that there is the odd occasion where the state does seem to be remarkably over-generous - for whatever reason that may be. Evidenced by the subsequent media outrage when it becomes public knowledge. However, for the majority of people in Britain, state help has pretty much gone byes-byes and you might as well whistle Dixie than waste your time asking for it. The computer will always be programmed to say.....no.
My argument is that welfare reform in the UK is indeed driven by a kind of prejudice or fear that people in poverty are somehow lazy, deviant and irresponsible. But that is not a new argument. Refer back to the days of Henry VIII and you often found those in poverty beaten, flogged and publically humiliated if they were considered to be beggars and vagrants. And yes, for being perceived as being lazy, deviant and irresponsible. Particularly after the dissolution and closing down of the monastery's when the poor, the sick and the disabled who were once under the care of the church, were subsequently thrown onto the streets to fend for themselves. (www.tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/poors.htm).
Therefore, replace Henry VIII with Iain Duncan Smith and replace the dissolution of the monasteries with welfare reform and nothing as arguably changed regarding the negative attitudes displayed towards the poor by Britain's 'establishment' - since the 1500's. Not such a facetious suggestion when we consider the growing number of vulnerable, homeless people in the UK who have actually been fined and imprisoned for begging and rough sleeping (The Guardian, 20th May 2018). And if you think fining or imprisoning those with no home, no money nor any realistic prospect of ever obtaining a home is really the way to solve the problem of homelessness, then you need a brain transplant.
When I first started my own research into disability hate crime, some disabled people were indeed suggesting that the negative political and media rhetoric surrounding the welfare state and benefit fraud were responsible for a rise in public abuse, harassment and violence displayed towards themselves. I've argued myself in the past that Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice had a hugely negative influence on public perception as regards those in poverty, including those not working for any reason at all.
Although, we always need to make clear that hate crime perpetrated against disability has been around forever. So, we cannot and should not pin all hate crime committed against disability upon Iain Duncan Smith nor Britain's toxic tabloids. However, from my research I have certainly come across a number of cases that did seem primarily motivated by the 'scroungers' and 'malingers' perception. So, make of that as you will. My own view is that some people may have indeed been influenced by the toxicity generated by our gloriously self-interested politicians and their media buddies. Or more than likely, were using that simply as an excuse to exercise whatever prejudice they already felt.
But because of the complexity of 'hate crime' in general, we should have a recap of the potential motivators that researchers have so far highlighted, before we discuss UK welfare reform and 'hate' towards disability within the same breath.
The motivation of hate crime
These are the possible motivators for 'hate crimes' in general. Hold onto your hats folks, here we go:
- Shame and Fury: In a study of people convicted of racially aggravated offences. Ray et al (2004) suggest racial hate crime can be understood in terms of shame and fury felt by perpetrators experiencing multiple disadvantage. These feelings of shame are subsequently projected onto others - who become scapegoats.
- Toxic Masculinity: This relates to set of narrow standards, behaviours and expectations for how males are suggested to behave. Expectations and group norms that value dominance, power and control over others (Thompkins-Jones 2016).
- Family and Education: McBride (2015) suggest that most of our prejudices are learned at a young age. While Walters (2015) also suggests that prejudice may be learnt from the community in which we grow up in.
- Media influence: Sensationalist reporting of events such as terrorist incidents may lead to 'spikes' in hate crime. Something that we also witnessed after the 2016 EU Referendum (Roberts et al. 2013).
- Thrill Seekers: Peer group pressure and young males seeking excitement (McDevitt and Levin, 1993).
- Defence: Perceived threat from 'outsiders'. Sometimes linked to changing demographics in a community (McDevitt and Levin, 1993).
- Retaliation: A case where an 'in-group' is perceived to have been attacked or disrespected by an 'outside' group. Often instigated after a trigger incident (McDevitt and Levin, 1993).
- Mission: Motivated by Ideology and hate of a particular group in order to rid the world of a perceived 'evil' source (McDevitt and Levin, 1993).
Of course, all of the above arguments have not come out of the research into disability hate crime - but perhaps some can be applied. I've already mentioned the role that negative political and media rhetoric may have had on abuse, harassment and violence committed towards some disabled people. In my own studies it is those who have quite obvious physical disabilities that seem to bear the brunt of such attacks - i.e., those in wheelchairs, using walking aids or if parked in a disabled car bay. In contrast, people with learning or intellectual disabilities rarely face the scrounger/fakery rhetoric.
'Thrill seeking' and 'Toxic Masculinity' are other obvious ones to mention. Like most hate crimes in general, the perpetrators in my research also tended to be young males (although not exclusively so). And when challenged over their behaviour I have heard the 'only having a laugh' argument on more than one occasion. 'Defence' may be another aspect, especially when people with more obvious, learning and intellectual disabilities first move into a neighbourhood or community. Yes, I've come across people being called names such as 'retard', 'freak', 'mong', 'rapist', 'paedophile' and 'dafty'. 'Dafty' being one that I've heard used primarily in Scotland. Name calling that often accompanies abuse, harassment and violence, together with calls for their 'removal' from the community completely. And you only have to google this topic to find instances when some people have been removed from the community permanently - by being murdered.
That links in with 'Retaliation' where I once remember a mum talking to me about her son's autism and how he had been attacked on more than one occasion by his peers, simply because some thought he was being 'rude', 'insulting' or just acting generally 'weird' to them. On many occasions her son had been punched in the face after being accused of being 'gay'. So, we should be able to see that some of the research conducted over racial, religious or homophobic hate crime may be also relevant to hate crimes conducted towards disability. Yet, disability hate crime is also unique.
Disability Hate Crime as a Unique Crime
Chakraborti and Garland (2012) argued that pinning 'hate crime' purely on the identity of the victim (in our case, the identity of being disabled) has limitations - particularly crimes against the elderly and the disabled. They proposed that the concepts of 'vulnerability' and 'difference' should be the focal points of hate crime perpetrated towards these types of victims. However, the only thing I would say is most criminal behaviour can be argued to be motivated by 'vulnerability', so that doesn't fully explain the crimes committed towards disabled people either. Computer hackers look for vulnerability in computer systems before they attempt to break into them and thieves often look for the easiest of targets to rob. But arguably there are often other motivators to these sorts of crimes beyond that of 'vulnerability'. A thief may rob out of economic need, whether we agree with the action or not. There is also a whiff of victim blaming going on within these explanations, something akin to arguing that a woman was raped just because she was wearing a short skirt or other 'provocative' clothing. So, we need to be careful when going down the 'vulnerability' route, as it doesn't actually tell us much apart from the bleeding obvious.
Of course, some disabled people may be targeted simply because they are perceived as being an easy and therefore a vulnerable target. But it certainly won't explain all cases nor the real underlying motivation behind the crime. Especially cases where disabled people have been abused, harassed and attacked from members of the public while out in the company of friends, partners and family members. So, are these victims 'vulnerable' when in the company of a group - or just when they are alone?
A common understanding of the term 'hate crime' generally involves opportunistic crimes, physical assault, abuse and harassment where the perpetrators do not usually have a relationship with their victim. Although they may live within the same neighbourhood. But we can see one unique element of disability hate crime in what has become to be termed 'mate crime'. Acts of cruelty, criminality and deception that may involve befriending a 'vulnerable' person with the intention of exploiting them in some way, such as financially, physically or sexually. Behaviour perpetrated by people known to the victim such as friends, neighbours, carers, partners and family members (Thomas 2011). So, this is indeed one area of unique difference compared to crimes committed against race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. But while some of these victims may be termed 'vulnerable', the prime motivation of the crime may be varied.
My own research (which is now into its eight year) picked up on the exploitation angle of disability hate crime almost from day one. Exploitation primarily committed against those with intellectual or learning disabilities, such as financial exploitation, sexual exploitation and using victims as some kind of cheap entertainment or amusement. Amusement that may start off small then escalate into something much more sinister and violent over time. Exploitation isn't just financial but may also include stealing someone's property or simply moving uninvited into someone's home and using it as your own. However, there may be many other aspects involved. But it not exclusively confined to intellectual or learning disabilities, I did have one case of physical disability hate crime that could be considered as sexual exploitation.
One of things I certainly picked up on is that there may be a gender bias in disability hate crime. Of course, males made up the majority of cases and certainly in my studies many could be classed as displaying 'toxic masculinity'. That is pretty much standard fare. However, I found Males far more likely to harass, abuse, push or attack those with learning difficulties and females far more likely to commit financial exploitation towards such victims. Males also made up the majority of attacks on physical disabilities. That said, with physical disabilities, both males and females seemed to jump upon the 'scrounger' and 'layabout' narrative in what was pretty much, equal numbers. Of course, nothing can ever be said to be totally excusive to one gender group. These are highly complex problems.
Another thing that I did find really interesting was the feeling that many of the acts were not opportunistic nor instinctive acts, but targeted to the point of almost being systematic. Certainly, more opportunistic as far as physical disabilities go, but there were also a number of cases of physical disability were the victim felt that they had been followed around (or stalked) for some time before the perpetrator acted. In cases that could be classed as primarily being 'Mate Crime', there was certainly some level of 'grooming' going on beforehand by both Males and Females.
That said, it needs to be highlighted that my studies are relatively small-scale qualitative studies, consisting of less than 60 in-depth interviews and around 30 other cases of varying quality. So, my findings will need to be tested more robustly over time and preferably with quantitative orientated research. Unfortunately, my research has had to be conducted without the support of a big university or indeed without a large wad of research cash. For the past few years, I've had to do all of this on my own, in my own time, with my own money and generally without any outside help or financial support. Something that has cost me substantially, not just financially and in terms of time - but also emotionally. Talking to people and discussing experiences of 'hate' can be one hell of an emotional ride for all involved. But I certainly don't regret anything.
However, I wouldn't have been able to do what I do without the support of Disabled-World and of course, some of Britain's amazing disabled community. What is also amazing, is what can be achieved with a little bit of individual and collective pig-headed, stubbornness. And although these may arguably not be life-changing nor earth shattering discoveries, they do add an extra layer of colour to the disability hate crime debate. For example, I have found a general difference in the types of 'hate crime' experienced between those with physical disabilities and those with intellectual disabilities. Most particularly in the type of language and terminology used in incidents, as well as sometimes in behaviours. One of the more obvious is the derogatory terms used relating to mental illness and mental impairment that are often thrown at those with learning disabilities - terms such as idiot, nutter and moron. Compare that to the derogatory terms of leg-iron, cripple and spazz often thrown at those with physical disabilities. As well as the scrounger and malinger type of abuse, of course.
It is interesting that incidents have also occurred when the victim has not been in a particularly 'vulnerable' position (i.e., not on their own) but in the company of others. I have also had email 'conversations' from two separate groups of parents outlining their experiences of 'hate crime' perpetrated against their children while out in public with them. The sort of events that support workers or carers have also highlighted. But considering how the UK generally considers children to be highly treasured processions, almost to the point of clinical obsession, it is interesting that 'disability' can at times also override this very strong social norm.
Hate Crimes that Mirror History?
From my own research, hate crimes committed against disability may mirror or mimic the treatment of disability in the past. I've broken these down into four main groups, although there may be others:
I have already alluded to 'Accusation' with aspects of name calling in crimes committed against intellectual disabilities. Accusations of sexual crimes or other deviant behaviour also have a long social history in Britain (Quarmby 2011). But of course, accusations of laziness, deviancy, unproductiveness, getting in the way, fakery and malingering can also be quite commonplace towards those with physical disabilities. Look back in history and we also find the poor, the sick and disabled people being accused of primarily being lazy, deviant or simply on the lookout for something-for-nothing. Stretch that a little bit further and we could argue that the 'medicalization of disability', arguably a form of social control and medical dominance that developed during the 1800's, is also a form of 'accusation'. Accusations of differing from a 'norm' of some kind, especially medical 'measurement'. Yet, these are arguably artificial and subjective indicators of what is considered to be normal and what isn't considered to be normal. Particularly, when medical knowledge itself changes, develops and advances over time. But just because something doesn't seem to fit the average, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is not - normal.
'Exploitation' I have already mentioned exploitation as being an aspect of mate crime. Yet, go back to the Victorian days we also find the exploitation of disabled people in 'freak shows' and by the medical procession itself, who sometimes put disabled people on public display. Then there is the sex trade. Prostitution was rife in Victorian age Britain, totalling around 80,000 women in London alone, according to research (Rogers 2009). Many of whom would have undoubtedly been disabled people, particularly those with learning or intellectual disabilities. One of the more famous disabled 'ladies of the night' being Elizabeth 'Betty' Steel (1764-1795) who was reportedly also the first deaf person to also be transported to Australia for criminal offences (information provided by Historic England website). And according to reports, people with disabilities or mental illness today are far more likely to be targeted by sex traffickers than people without disabilities or mental illness (Information provided by the Centre for Victim Research).
Then there is 'Incarceration'. I have come across aspects of incarceration many number of times. Such as disabled people being blocked from going about their business, shoved into phone boxes/booths, stopped from getting on or off public transport - or even from leaving their own home. I've also considered when disabled people get pushed over, have walking aids kicked away or get tipped out of wheelchairs - that this is also a form of incarceration. It keeps people in one spot for a certain amount of time at least, and perhaps acts as a proxy form of control.
It wasn't all that long ago when disabled people were removed from society completely, controlled and segregated into residential homes, mental institutions, hospitals and schools. So, it is not such a giant leap of faith to imagine that this is what people may be unintentionally or subconsciously mirroring and mimicking. Read any survey on disability hate crime and you will find some disabled people reporting that their neighbourhood or community doesn't actually want that person to be living there. Something that is particularly true for those with learning or intellectual disabilities.
I have also come across one instance where a mainstream secondary school stopped a young child with both physical and learning disabilities from appearing in its annual, school Christmas concert. And simply because of complaints from a number of parents that they didn't want to look at a disabled child. Shocking yes. Discrimination yes. Exclusion yes. Marginalisation yes. But is it a Hate crime? Arguably not, but it has the same consequences.
Of course, the school was completely wrong to go along with the request or complaint as the child was effectively 'removed' from the school (temporally) through no fault of her own. But that example may also mimic the removal of disability and the segregation of disability that we would have undoubtedly witnessed a couple of hundred years ago. Of course, people may just not like seeing disabled children in public as it may upset them. But disabled people who are visible in society may also fly in the face of the deep-rooted social perceptions and social norms surrounding disability that such people should indeed be kept separate and segregated from the rest of us.
Then there is the 'Entertainment' aspect of hate crime, such as the 'thrill seeking' or 'amusement' behaviour noted previously. But something not that far removed from the medical voyeurism we can find in the past nor the Victorian freak shows. If we look at literature or films over the years, we find disabled people typically being portrayed as victims, institutionalised, non-sexual beings, monsters, wicked people or occasionally, inspirational people - and all for the sake of entertainment. They are images and themes that may also shape the public consciousness about what disability is and what disabled people are like. Disabled people therefore become socially legitimated figures of fun and amusement, and some people may feel that it's subsequently ok to use disabled people for their own entertainment
Comparing Hate Crime to UK Welfare Reform
As we can see, disability hate crime may contain behaviours motivated by:
- Toxic Masculinity
- Thrill Seeking
- Media Influence
- Mate Crime
- Incarceration or segregation
I for one, believe that UK welfare reform is just as toxic for disabled people as both disability hate crime and discrimination is. I also believe it is largely based upon a bias and prejudice of those in poverty, including sick and disabled people. People in poverty are treated and perceived as being not only lazy, but irresponsible and deviant. So, that is a tick in the 'hate crime' box for me, at least. Take a look at these quotes from three former British Prime Minsters:
"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."
-- Margaret Thatcher (1987)
As we can see, Mrs T argues that we all have a duty to look after ourselves first and not automatically look towards the state to help us. There is no such thing as entitlement without meeting our obligations first - and presumably that also means to each other, not just government. Arguably, not a shocking suggestion, but if you are made homeless through no real fault of your own, as some child abuse and domestic abuse victims indeed are, then often there is no-one else to turn to. If the state doesn't help, who will? The assumption is that 'people' have got 'entitlement' to state support too much in mind. But where is the evidence that this is actually true? If you work with homeless people, those in poverty, disabled people or those with drug or alcohol addiction, rarely will you find a feeling of 'entitlement' amongst the 'victims'. You will certainly find an overwhelming vibe of appreciation, even for the smallest kindest offered. But entitlement? And without any evidence to suggest that millions upon millions of people are exploiting the system in such a manner. Accusations and suggestions that not only seem wide of the mark, but pushed largely by a deep-rooted 'establishment' prejudice towards its own people.
Despite that lack of evidence we have had more than 40 years of such accusations, within my lifetime certainly. Listen to Labour PM Tony Blair speak some years later and there is a similar theme:
"In welfare, for too long, the right had let social division and chronic unemployment grow; the left argued for rights but were weak on responsibilities. We believe passionately in giving people the chance to get off benefit and into work. We have done it for 1¼ million."
"But there are hundreds of thousands more who could work, given the chance. It's right for them, for the country, for society. But with the chance, comes a responsibility on the individual - to take the chance, to make something of their lives and use their ability and potential to the full."
"That is the key to Job Centre Plus. It embodies on the one hand the enabling welfare state, spreading opportunity - and on the other our reform of public services, as a new responsive service focused on the jobless. But for it to work, it has to be founded on mutual responsibility."
"Government has a responsibility to provide real opportunities for individuals to gain skills and to get into work that pays. But individuals also have a responsibility to grasp those opportunities."
"All of our reforms have the same underlying principles - opportunity, fairness and mutual responsibility. We want to give people the chance to fulfil their potential. We want to raise people's expectations and their self-belief, by giving them the tools to help themselves."
(Tony Blair 2002)
Sure, there is talk about 'mutual responsibility' and 'fairness' but ultimately the responsibility and onus is on the individual to 'grasp' their opportunities and chances. As we can see, the 'left' is argued to have been weak on individual responsibility and it's a responsibility not just to society but government or the state. It's a 'mutual' responsibility. And it was under Tony Blair that the Work Capability Assessment was developed, aimed totally at sick and disabled people, and shifted the goal-posts away from ill-health and impairment - and towards 'functionality'. You may be sick or disabled but there is still work that you can arguably do, that's why 'ability to 'function' is tested. I will go into more detail about that in a second, but for disabled people this was arguably the beginning of an extremely hostile policy that was aimed primarily at sick and disabled people only.
Clearly, Mr Blair didn't trust disabled people nor the ability of the medical profession to weed out the abled-bodied shirkers from the genuine disabled claimants. From day one, disabled people complained about a system of jumping through hoops like a performing seal, in order to prove their disability. And yes, arguably equivalent to providing some kind of cheap 'Entertainment' or weird amusement for WCA assessors. The campaign group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) put together a YouTube video in 2017 in which advocates, lawyers and claimants outline the main fundamental problems with the WCA and its adverse effects. Where assessments are suggested not only to be humiliating but where some assessors are argued to be 'rude' and even 'cruel' to sick and disabled people (https://dpac.uk.net/category/wca/). An assessment where some disabled people may also be in large amount of pain and extreme physical discomfort.
So, what about David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. What did he think of this new Thatcherite and hostile regime towards sick and disabled people that was seemingly put together under the previous Labour government in 2006?
"......we have, in some ways, created a welfare gap in this country between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it. Those within it grow up with a series of expectations: you can have a home of your own, the state will support you whatever decisions you make, you will always be able to take out no matter what you put in. This has sent out some incredibly damaging signals. That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. It gave us millions of working-age people sitting at home on benefits even before the recession hit. It created a culture of entitlement. And it has led to huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they're having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort."
-- David Cameron (2012)
In short, it pays not to work and no matter what dodgy decisions you make, Brits expect the state to look after them afterwards. Yep, millions of people sat at home on benefits, a culture of entitlement etc., etc. Despite not being any real evidence to back those accusations up. Certainly for me, people like Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have simply and cynically exploited this argument to the hilt over the passing years, and primarily to sell damaging welfare reform to the British public. Particularly surrounding unemployment and economic inactivity. In short, it's an argument where state welfare is presented as costing far too much, over-generous and creating a dependency culture where people expect the state to support them if running into trouble - particularly when it's their own fault. But once again, it is work ethic that becomes the primary focus and any deviancy from that norm of work and productiveness becomes a major concern to our political big brothers and sisters. It is therefore ideology not economics that is the focus.
And as we all should know, there are far less disabled people of working age in employment compared to non-disabled people. In 2012, that was 46.3% of working-age disabled people in employment compared to 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people (www.gov.uk). Of course, the term 'disabled' may give a very good clue to why that gap is so large. Not to mention the 'discrimination' angle. But that discrepancy is all our politicians and our toxic tabloids need in order to insinuate and suggest that those stats indicate laziness. And why not? Our politicians generally think all Brits are lazy and unproductive anyway and "among the worse idlers in the world" - as a group of Conservative MP's alleged in 'Britannia Unchanged' (2012). The Financial Times (2018) call it a 'productivity crisis'. The London riots of 2011 were even blamed on unproductivity, as well as upon family breakdown and a benefit system that had helped generate a 'growing underclass' of people living unproductive lives (Iain Duncan Smith, as reported in the Guardian Newspaper, 3rd October 2011).
So, yes we could put a tick in the 'Exploitation' box and argue that sick and disabled people may have indeed been exploited in order to sell welfare reform to the British public. Ok, ok, it might seem a bit of a tenuous link, but no doubt public attitudes towards welfare benefits have indeed changed over the years. For example, support for welfare spending and for increased spending on welfare fell from 43% in 2001 to just 28% in 2011 (British Social Attitudes 29). While, those who thought unemployment benefits far too high and only discouraged working, more than doubled from 1991 (27%) to 2011 (66%), according to the same source.
In 2012, nearly half of all people with disabilities believed that attitudes towards them have worsened over the 12 months previously, according to a survey by the charity, Scope. A survey in which 64% of disabled people said that they had experienced aggression, hostility or name calling. With many indeed blaming the negative and political rhetoric surrounding benefit fraud and benefit cheats (Learning Disability Today, 2nd August 2012). And research released in 2011 by the Glasgow Media Group and the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research, found that there had been an increased politicisation of media coverage of disability during 2010-2011 compared to 2004-2005 - together with an increase in negative stories about welfare benefit fraud.
We know that Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice worked tirelessly from 2004 onwards in order to influence public opinion on state welfare and reform. That is documented and recorded for prosperity, shaping political policy that was finally introduced in 2010. And as I said, arguably 'exploiting' sick and disabled people along the way in order to sell those reforms to a gullible audience. Whether this is indeed actual exploitation of sick and disabled people as defined under 'hate crime' literature is of course, open to debate.
But what about the comments made in 2014 by Lord Freud, a government welfare reform minister who was suggesting that some disabled workers were simply 'not worth' the UK national minimum wage. And that perhaps, such people should be paid as little as £2 an hour. Something that we could certainly consider to be 'Exploitation'. Particularly when Disabled World itself reported in 2010 how the practice of paying people with disabilities smaller wages compared to the able-bodied has actually been legal practice across much of America since the late 1930's.
The Smoking Gun of the Work Capability Assessment
If we ever needed a smoking gun in arguing that government welfare reform is indeed a form of 'hate', the WCA may well provide it. As I said previously, you can easily trace the UK's treatment of poverty, sickness and disability throughout time, going back centuries. And the usual cure is not care but control and punishment. Take a look at the crime prosecution service's (CPS) definition of hate crime:
"The term 'hate crime' can be used to describe a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim's disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity."
Poor people in the UK have certainly been hit the hardest through welfare reform from 2010 onwards and the gap between rich and poor increasingly widens on almost a daily basis. The Disability Benefits Consortium (a consortium of around 80 organisations) released research in 2019 that argued that disabled people had actually been hit four times harder than non-disabled welfare claimants under cumulative cuts in the system since 2008 (Daily Mirror 16th July 2019). And 2008 is an important date for us to remember. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) argued in 2017 that the poorest households in the UK were disproportionally hit the hardest by government 'austerity' measures. With disabled people, single parents and women amongst the biggest losers (The Guardian 17th November 2017). In 2016, the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) even concluded that welfare reforms had led to "grave and systematic violations" of disabled people's rights (BBC 7th November 2016).
So, as a minimum, there is enough evidence to suggest that the poorest in the UK have been hit the hardest by UK welfare reform that undoubtedly began in 2008, not 2010. With disabled people not only primarily bearing the brunt of reform, but to the point of it being an abuse of their human rights. In 2017, David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued:
"There is a real concern that disabled people are being increasingly marginalised and shut out of society as they bear the brunt of the accumulated impact of cuts in public spending."
(The independent, 23rd August 2017).
It is clear that welfare reform and cuts in public spending have indeed marginalised and excluded many disabled people from society. With some disabled people almost 'incarcerated' within their own homes or indeed forced back into residential care. Cuts to welfare benefits, the application of benefit sanctions and changes to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) seriously impact upon a growing number of disabled people who used such money in order to live independently. So much so, we are not only dangerously close to shutting disabled people out of society, we are also in danger of moving straight back to the 1800's. With disabled people once again segregated from society and placed into 'care'. Or control, as the case may be.
Some disabled people have already given up independent living completely because of welfare reform, reform that was argued to be necessary in order to make people less dependent on the state. The MS society highlighted in 2017 that care homes specifically designed to meet the needs of older people were actually being incorrectly used to house thousands of under-65s with disabilities (PSE 14th November 2017). Also in 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported that the NHS were introducing rules that would force up to 13,000 disabled people back into institutions or care homes. A plan that was described as the 'warehousing' of disabled people (The Guardian 25th January 2017). A move that was criticized by disability campaigners as being the beginning of the re-institutionalisation of disabled people.
We should also remind ourselves that the closing down of institutions and other facilities in the 1980's in order to implement policy such as 'care-in-the-community', wasn't just driven by a campaign for disability equality and equal rights, but by governmental desire to save money. It was considered far cheaper for the state to move those who had been living in large institutions for decades, back into the community. A policy that became quickly dubbed care-by-the-community, when the responsibility for care for those with long term sickness or disability seemed to be increasingly removed from the state and slowly pushed back towards family, partners, friends and the community as a whole. Not only economic policy but a social behavioural one.
Despite those changes, with an increasingly older population and arguably a growing disabled community, the powers that be are still looking to cut costs in care and in any way they possibly can. We've already seen huge cuts to disability welfare spending, including PIP, which was introduced by Iain Duncan Smith himself in 2013. However, the cost of care may actually be a secondary concern when compared to concern over all Brits being lazy or irresponsible - something that can be argued to be simply a form of 'class bias'. But, if disabled people have borne the brunt of current UK welfare reform, have they been specifically targeted and singled out? More importantly, is it 'hostile' behaviour?
According to the UK's CPS, there is no legal definition of hostility, so the CPS uses an everyday understanding of the word within its understanding of 'hate crime'. A definition that includes:
- Ill will
I've argued that Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice have had a huge influence on both the public perception of those on welfare benefits being cheats, scroungers and irresponsible - as well as upon welfare policy itself. What Iain Duncan Smith was arguing for from 2004 onwards, he has undoubtedly achieved when gaining power. And if ever a man displayed traits of 'toxic masculinity', it's this clown.
A politician who was never been slow at displaying prejudice and hostility towards those not working for any reason - be they claiming welfare benefits or not claiming benefits. Here's what the Centre for Social Justice had to say about the 'economically inactive' in 2009:
"Today, there are 10.4 million working-age people not working in the UK. Of these, 5.9 million are claiming out-of-work benefits." (A Policy Report from the Economic Dependency Working Group, page 15, September 2009, Centre for Social Justice).
Of course, almost half of these people were not officially classed as being unemployed' nor receiving unemployment 'benefits'. However, that didn't stop Iain Duncan Smith from alleging in the preface to this report:
".......we must also recognise that few of those out of work would look upon work as a moral choice".
Despite there being little evidence to back up this rather sweeping generalisation that more than 10 million Brits, who are actually not working for a variety of valid reasons, have a problem with morality. But the Centre for Social Justice itself can be argued to have had much more influence on both political policy and the public consciousness then any of the UK's toxic tabloids such as the Sun, The Daily Mail and the Daily Express - or indeed its toxic editors and owners.
In 'the Myth of Broken Britain (2012)' Tom Slater indeed put forward this argument, where the CJS primarily focused public attention on arguments that Britain was 'broken', broken by its perceived dependency culture, particularly by those at the bottom of the social ladder who were simply irresponsible, deviant and lazy. A dependency culture were over-generous welfare payments not only encouraged people not to work, but where you could earn far more by being out-of-work than being in it.
So, if we're ticking any 'hate crime' boxes, you can certainly tick the one marked 'Media Influence'. But as a taster of what was to come, when finally becoming Work and Pensions Secretary in the Conservative/Liberal Democratic government of 2010, Iain Duncan Smith not only quickly introduced his long thought out reforms on universal credit, but arguably also enacted the most punitive sanctions towards the poor that any British government had ever introduced. Actions such as:
- Disabled people forced to attend 'work preparation' programmes and expected to find work.
- Lone parents with children under five expected to attend 'keeping in-touch' interviews and to prove that they are preparing themselves to work.
- Those 'fit to work' and on Jobseekers Allowance forced to accept any available job. If none were available, then they were to be placed onto 'Mandatory Work Activity' programmes.
In a newspaper interview in 2010, Iain Duncan Smith also reportedly said "The message will go across: play ball or it's going to be difficult" (The Telegraph, 6th November 2010). Something similar to when speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme in November 2010 when Duncan Smith argued that it was a 'sin' that Brits didn't take up the jobs that were available at jobcentres, and that:
"The message is clear. If you can work, then a life on benefits will no longer be an option. If people are asked to do community work they will be expected to turn up. If people are asked to apply for a job by an adviser they will be expected to put themselves forward. If people can work and they are offered work, they will be expected to take it. This is the deal. Break the deal and they will lose their unemployment benefit. Break it three times and they will lose it for three years."
A clear signal that the perceived lazy and irresponsible behaviour of the poor was about to change or be punished for not changing. Or to put this in terms of 'hate crime' research:
- Accusation - Accusing millions of people not working for any reason as being lazy, irresponsible and deviant.
- Defence - Arguing that the concept of 'work ethic' was being eroded by state welfare and that therefore needed - defending.
- Retaliation - Targeting those not working with 'punishment' of some kind. And by 'incentivising' sick and disabled people back to work by the removal of welfare payments and the application of benefit sanctions.
As I keep saying, there has never been any evidence presented that indicates there are millions of Brits who have never worked and do not want to work. It does not exist. In addition, many disabled people want to work but often come up against a wall of discrimination. So, many of the arguments presented by Iain Duncan Smith that such a 'culture' of laziness, often seem based upon the most flimsy of evidence. Usually by taking 'economic inactivity' statistics as being an indicator of the deviancy and laziness of a nation. A group of non-working people who don't just include disabled people, but stay-at-home mums and dads looking after children, students in full-time education and those taking early retirement.
But these are indeed the numbers often used to frighten the rest of us into believing that such a dependency culture exits - and that the work ethic is indeed under threat. From 2004 onwards, Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice has arguably been on a 'Mission' to rid the UK of its lazy, irresponsible and deviant people. Perhaps not intending to kill people off as such, but certainly by changing their behaviour. However, statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2015 revealed that during the period December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended after being found fit-for-work via a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). That amounts to 90 people a month not only being wrongly classified as fit-for-work but dying after being wrongly classified as fit-for-work. Arguably, you cannot be fit for any type of work if you die soon after an assessment. And if people are dying, then we seriously need to raise the question of why the system repeatedly thinks such people are indeed fit enough to work.
But the WCA is so basically flawed in its design and logic that is indeed what it is saying. You may be ill, disabled and terminally ill in many cases, but you are still fit to do some kind of work in the interim. Arguably, the WCA is therefore only doing what it is designed to do. Of course, Iain Duncan Smith inherited the WCA from the previous Labour government, but he was officially warned as early as 2010 of its danger to vulnerable welfare claimants, at least. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith failed to make the WCA safe or scrap it completely has opened himself up to accusations that he deliberately ignored those warnings in order to use the WCA to remove as many sick and disabled people as possible from the benefit system. Even those dying from terminal illnesses.
A system that as also seen many disabled people commit suicide and others starve to death. It's so much of a failure that the Disability News Service in December 2019 even called for a criminal investigation into Iain Duncan's Smiths time as head of the Department of Works and Pensions from 2010 to 2016. But of course, we can't pin the introduction of the WCA on Iain Duncan Smith. But we can ask why he continued with a system that seemed so badly - 'flawed'. We can also pin benefit sanctions on both himself and the Department of Works and Pensions.
In 2011, a 'whistle-blower' told the Guardian newspaper that staff at his jobcentre were given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits were removed for up to six months. It was argued to be part of a 'culture change' that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices (The Guardian, 1st April 2011). Iain Duncan Smith later appeared on TV to claim that the story was simply 'claptrap'. However, email evidence emerged highlighting that targets were indeed being imposed to stop people's benefits, and in some cases staff claimed that they also had been threatened with sanctions themselves if they did not reach those set targets. The DWP subsequently issued a statement confirming the practice but that it had been going on in some offices only due to a 'misunderstanding' between the DWP and some jobcentre managers (The Guardian, 8th April 2011).
But even if such target setting were a genuine mistake in 2011 (and that is not a certainty) in response to a freedom of information request in 2017, the DWP duly indicated that central government had indeed been setting targets to turn down the vast majority of benefit sanction appeals. A figure set at around 80% according to the Work and Pensions Select Committee (Disability Rights UK, 14th December 2017). So, if they have admitted setting such targets, what target setting have they not yet owned up about?
If we take a look also at DWP figures released in December 2017, these highlight that out of a total of 947,000 claimants who were reassessed for the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) in the year up to October 2017, 22% had their benefits reduced and 25% were disallowed or withdrawn altogether. Figures that mean 443,000 people (47%) will have had their benefit claims reduced or removed in the course of one year alone. That should be a massive eye-opener for those who still doubt that welfare benefits are being systematically removed from sick and disabled people - and solely for the sake of political ideology. And if disabled people are being singled out for hostile and prejudiced behaviour, then that surely is 'hate'.
But the real smoking gun in the argument of welfare reform as a form of 'hate crime' may be found in the ideology underpinning the Work Capability Assessment itself. If we refer back to Labour's Welfare Reform Green Paper of January 2006, key thinking surrounding the WCA focused on:
- The right to work.
- A changing national economy.
- A rapidly aging population and a falling birth rate.
- An assessment process focusing on potential capability and capacity to engage in the labour market, rather than incapacity.
- Reform of the exempt to work category.
- Framework of both rights and responsibility. Refusing to engage in the help and support offered could see benefits progressively reduced in stages, to the level of jobseeker's allowance.
- A goal of an 80% employment rate.
- Older workers to remain in employment longer.
Arguably, even in 2006 we can see Britain's political elite showing huge concern over a shortage of labour due to an aging population and a falling birth rate. And with an employment goal set at 80% (the current rate being around 75%) the sick, disabled people and the elderly were all arguably being targeted as an alternative labour force.
So, for a start, we can see where Tony Blair was leading when he talked about 'mutual responsibility'. But in reality, there was a much bigger emphasis now placed upon the individual's responsibility to the state rather than the state's responsibility to the individual. Or towards each other. There is also an underlying assumption at play here, that most of those who are not working due to ill health and disability could in fact work if they really, really wanted to. Again, there is no evidence to really suggest that level of fraud. And as most people will be aware, disability increases with age, so also forcing or encouraging elderly people to stay in work longer, means more will undoubtedly also be struggling with a disability.
Take a look at the Green paper that introduced the WCA 2006 and the WCA was always designed to be a key player in getting sick or disabled people back to work, and by a shift in thinking that now focused on what sick and disabled people can still do and not what they can't. An assessment process focusing on potential capability and capacity to engage in the labour market, rather than incapacity. So, rarely is anybody absolved of working regardless of ill-health or disability. Evidenced by the following newspaper headlines:
"Severely disabled 19-year-old with a mental age of just five is ordered to have a fitness-to-work test despite not being able to read, write, talk or even sleep on her own" - The Mail, 26th November 2014.
"Man left with half a head after surgery following a stroke has his benefits slashed as officials tell him he is fit to work despite suffering paralysis and memory loss" - The Mail Online, 14th May 2016.
"Woman with mental age of a toddler had benefits stopped because she missed her DWP appointment" - The Echo, 29th January 2017.
"DWP tells man with incurable brain tumour he is fit for work, says GP" - The Independent, 3rd May 2018.
"Man born without arms or legs ordered to prove he can't work three times in a year" - The Daily Mirror, 7th December 2019.
Surely, this system could not have been designed to be any crueller? We can actually compare the WCA to the previous assessment system by taking a brief look at a research document that was produced for the DWP by Barnes, Aston and Williams in December 2010:
"Staff felt that, compared to the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA), the WCA was a more objective functional assessment, and noted that the descriptors were improved, eliminating some duplication and dealing better with certain conditions, such as severe mental health conditions. Other conditions were viewed as somewhat more problematic to access using the WCA, as the HCPs (Health Care Professionals) felt they had less discretion. Conditions which were specifically mentioned in this respect were fluctuating conditions, some mental health conditions, and multiple sclerosis (MS). HCPs also noted that the move to the WCA represented a considerable shift in the threshold for claiming a sickness benefit. The reassessment of existing incapacity benefits customers for ESA, using the WCA, was noted as representing a considerable challenge."
For a start we can pick out 3 key differences of the WCA:
- A more objective and functional assessment
- Health Care Professionals felt that they had less discretion over fluctuating health conditions and some mental health conditions.
- A considerable shift in threshold for claiming welfare benefits.
That last point is a key one for us considering that it was now arguably more difficult from day one to claim welfare under the WCA than it was under the old PCA. Therefore, the assessment not just focuses on different criteria but is arguably a far tougher assessment to pass. The WCA therefore sets the bar at an almost unachievable level. Representing a considerable challenge according to staff. Here's a quote from page 49 of the report:
"Staff who had previously worked under Incapacity Benefit (IB) recognised that the WCA was intentionally stricter than the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) and that the threshold for benefit eligibility has risen significantly. However, in some cases, staff felt the WCA had gone too far the other way."
There you have it. Even in the early days of the WCA, staff felt that it was intentionally stricter and that it may have actually gone too far. A document that was produced for the Department of Works and Pensions itself and under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith in December 2010.
Summary and Discussion
I've tried to address the argument that UK welfare reform should be classed as 'hate crime' perpetrated by the state towards disabled people. For sure, you may be able to tick a few of the following 'hate crime' motivators:
- Toxic Masculinity
- Media Influence
- Incarceration or segregation
You may certainly tick them, but getting anyone in authority to take this seriously is another matter. So, let's remind ourselves of The CPS definition of hate crime:
"The term 'hate crime' can be used to describe a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim's disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity."
We certainly have a degree of hostility arguably displayed towards disabled people by the DWP, hence the following newspaper headline from 2018:
"The hostile environment? Britain's disabled people live there too" (The Guardian, 26th April 2018)
An article where Francis Ryan argues that the injustice of the Windrush scandal and the deliberately generated 'hostile environment' policy surrounding illegal immigration, will be familiar to disabled people who have gone through something similar. But as the CPS definition perhaps indicates, is this actually a 'crime'?
Sick and disabled people have undoubtedly borne the brunt of welfare reform. But of course, other groups have suffered too, perhaps not to the same degree, but nonetheless they have suffered. So, we can't say that disabled people have solely been targeted for hostility and prejudice by 'welfare reform' in general. I've argued myself that it is the poor as a social group that always seem be the subject of state monitoring and punishment. Iain Duncan Smith certainly picked on the 'economically inactive' but they also include mums, dads, students and early retirees, not just disabled people.
Undoubtedly, benefit sanctions and government target setting to turn down the vast majority of sanction appeals, is indeed hostile towards sick and disabled people - showing unfriendliness, contempt, antagonism and spite. Especially when we consider the words of Iain Duncan Smith when he was filmed on the 10th March 2016 claiming that benefit sanctions helped people to 'focus' (The Guardian 11th March 2016). Or when he defended benefit cuts by bragging he could live off just £7 a day, only for it to emerge that he used taxpayer's money for a one night stay in a hotel costing £193 -including £39 for breakfast (The Mirror, 4th April 2013). If that is not showing contempt or being antagonistic, then what is?
As argued above, the CPS uses an everyday understanding of the word 'hostility' within its concept of 'hate crime'. A definition that includes:
- Ill will
Many of which seem to fit our argument over welfare reform, especially if reform is designed primarily to punish deviant behaviour and incentivise good behaviours. The CPS also regard hate crime as containing the behaviour(s) of verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property. So, if the DWP can be proven to have made threats to unfairly remove welfare benefits or have harassed, intimidated and bullied welfare claimants, then that may indeed be considered as 'hate crime'. As DPAC argued in their 2017 video, some WCA assessors not only display incredible rudeness to disabled claimants but also cruelty.
There is also an argument to be had that the state (both historically and today) display prejudice towards many of its own citizens - and primarily the poor. Certainly, being 'poor' is an identity characteristic, or to put it another way - 'poverty identity' (Banker et al, 2018). But sick and disabled people also make up a significant proportion of those in poverty. An estimated 14.3 million people live in poverty in the UK (Full Fact, 27th September 2019). The Social Metrics Commission argued in 2018 that nearly 7 million of those live in a household with a disabled person (48%).
But the Work Capability Assessment, the main weapon any government has in forcing sick and disabled people back into work, was specifically targeted at only sick and disabled people. It is also based on the false assumption that sick and disabled people can do far more than they say they can - or could work if they really wanted to. If such an assessment can be proven to be harmful and is targeted towards sick and disabled people purely because of their identity of being sick or disabled, then that sure seems not just hostile and reckless behaviour, but prejudiced and hateful.
Here is a newspaper article from 2002:
Blair Launches Attack on Britain's 'sick note' Culture
"Britain's 'sick note' culture, where millions of people who leave work due to illness never get another job, will be attacked by Tony Blair in a major speech tomorrow. The Prime Minister will say that people on incapacity benefit will be expected to attend regular assessment meetings to ensure that they are still unable to work. In a move that is set to be controversial with disability groups, Blair will draw on statistics that show that 90 per cent of people claim they expect to go back to work within five months when they are first signed off sick. But after five years only 20 per cent have found another job. Many use their illness as an excuse not to find work."
(The Guardian, 9th June 2002)
The article goes on to give examples of people who claimed to be ill or disabled and claiming welfare benefits, but who were later discovered to be fraudulent. But arguably these are rare and extreme instances out of millions of sick and disabled people. Sure, there needs to be a robust system in place that roots out fraud. But, the accusation that 'many use their illness as an excuse not to find work'? Where is the evidence that out of millions of sick and disabled people claiming welfare benefits - 'many' of those millions will just be fakes? Millions and millions of fake claimants?
But as we have seen above, the reasoning behind the Work Capability Assessment was arguably not primarily about combatting benefit fraud at all, but about removing as many sick and disabled people as possible from the system. So that they would be forced back into work. The primary concern was therefore over a falling birth-rate and an aging population, not fraud. Of course, this is how it was sold to the general public, but read the reasoning contained within the policy papers and something else emerges.
We find that the key motivators for bringing in the WCA as being:
- The right to work.
- A changing national economy.
- A rapidly aging population and a falling birth rate.
- An assessment process focusing on potential capability and capacity to engage in the labour market, rather than incapacity.
- Reform of the exempt to work category.
- Framework of both rights and responsibility. Refusing to engage in the help and support offered could see benefits progressively reduced in stages, to the level of jobseeker's allowance.
- A goal of an 80% employment rate.
- Older workers to remain in employment longer.
The Work Capability Assessment therefore is designed to be a different type of assessment from the previous one. One that focuses on remaining 'function' and with the bar set so high that rarely is anybody absolved from the requirement to work. Therefore, the assessment is arguably orientated to refuse welfare to as many sick and disabled people as possible - and simply by setting the bar at an unbelievably high level. That is prejudice and discrimination as a minimum. It begins with a false accusation and not just in defence of the work ethic but in effect, becomes a form of retaliation.
But what percentage of welfare benefit is lost to benefit fraud anyway? A survey in 2013 suggested that the public believed it was about £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits. However the real figure at the time was around £1 (BBC 5th June 2017). Back in 2012/2013, £1.2bn of the £166bn welfare bill was lost to benefit fraud (0.7%). However, £1.4bn was estimated to have also been underpaid to claimants due to both claimant errors and official error (0.8%). But you usually never get to hear that side of the story. Of course, these are huge sums of money involved, but the public perception that 24 times more money is lost to fraud than what was the case, indicates how much the general public may have been conned into believing that benefit fraud was a much bigger problem to the taxpayer than it generally was.
Not a criminal offence in the political world, even if it stinks to high heaven. However, if you conned somebody in real life and money was involved, you would more than likely get a visit from the police. We know that evidence exists to suggest welfare reforms have hit disabled people the hardest since 2010. Although, there are other groups that have been hit too. But we know that the WCA was aimed completely at sick and disabled people only, and that the DWP ignored warnings from at least coroners that vulnerable people were committing suicide after involvement with the process.
But is it a 'hate crime'? As I argued previously, the British establishment seems traditionally and historically biased and prejudiced against those in poverty, including disabled people. In general, those in poverty are viewed as being lazy, irresponsible and deviant. And as we already know, hate crime is argued to be motivated by bias and prejudice too. Of course, 'hate crime' also needs something to happen that can be defined as an actual 'crime' under UK law. But if the DWP has conducted itself in a way that leads to a risk of bodily injury and death then that could indeed be classed as criminal negligence. If the DWP has failed in its duty of care towards disabled people then that may be a case of corporate manslaughter. However, these are complex legal arguments that are best left to the legal experts.
That said, the Disability News Service (DNS) reported in 2019 that coroner Tom Osborne first raised official concerns to the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) about the suicide of Stephen Carré in 2010 - writing a rule 43 Report to the DWP itself. A report sent to: "a person, organisation, local authority or government department or agency where the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths". The DNS claim that both Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling would have most certainly seen the coroner's report in their roles as senior DWP ministers, but failed to take the appropriate actions highlighted by the order to make the WCA safe. Exposing hundreds of thousands of other disabled people to life-threatening risks. Iain Duncan Smith as head of the DWP had a clear legal duty to respond to Coroner Osborne's letter within 56 days. He failed to do so and did not reply until February 2016. A response claimed by the DWP to have been drafted in the autumn of 2010, but that was neither signed nor dated and only emerged publically in March 2016. The Disability News Service has now called for a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct in public office by Iain Duncan Smith and other senior Department of Works and Pensions figures. So, it will be interesting to see how those allegations pan out.
Barbara Perry (2001) arguably offers the most comprehensive definition of hate crime to date that takes into consideration 'politics':
"Hate crime... involves acts of violence and intimidation, usually directed towards already stigmatised and marginalised groups. As such, it is a mechanism of power and oppression, intended to reaffirm the precarious hierarchies that characterise a given social order. It attempts to re-create simultaneously the threatened (real or imagined) hegemony of the perpetrator's group and the 'appropriate' subordinate identity of the victim's group. It is a means of marking both the Self and the Other in such a way as to re-establish their 'proper' relative positions, as given and reproduced by broader ideologies and patterns of social and political inequality."
For Perry, hate crimes are directed at 'stigmatised' and 'marginalised' groups. Perry therefore defines hate crime much more widely than simply perpetrated towards race, ethnicity or religion. Under this definition we would certainly place disability but also those in poverty in general, as not only marginalisation but stigmatised. And stigmatised by government not just groups of the general population. For Perry, 'power' and 'oppression' become an intrinsic part of hate crime, and where power is exercised over marginalised groups. And that power may be not only make the victim feel powerless but may also open them up to systematic abuse, violence and exploitation. The fact that powerful groups are also in a position to push their preferred cultural or social norms, means that these norms and values become the most dominant within society and anything that seems deviant to those norms, represented as a serious threat to society as a whole.
The most interesting part of this hate crime definition is that the oppression of stigmatised and marginalised groups is not just reflected through individuals or groups acting out or protecting those perceived social norms, social ideologies or power hierarchies that seem to be keep being reproduced over time - but also through political inequality.
With the Work Capability Assessment aimed purely at millions of sick and disabled people in Britain, surely that is a sign that sick and disabled people are arguably the most politically 'unequal' people in British society today. Particularly, as the WCA affects all or the majority of sick and disabled people, with very few not being classified as 'fit-for-work' - and many dying soon afterwards. Clearly having no political voice and absolutely no say in what basically happens to them, and certainly no political power to alter that situation.
But with the UN continuing to argue that one of the most serious consequences of UK welfare reform is the violation of the 'human rights' of British disabled people - this has arguably also become an international issue. Not simply a domestic dispute between the UK government and some of its battle-wary citizens over welfare provision. This is an attack on the basic human rights of people who are already marginalised and treated as second-class citizens within their own country. If that happened in France, Germany or Russia, our government would be making a giant noise of it and quickly scoring political brownie points.
I'm certainly torn between viewing the appalling mistreatment of Britain's sick and disabled as being either 'hate' or a 'crime'. For me, it certainly fits with most common definitions of what actually 'hate' is - an intense dislike or loathing. We only need to refer back to Gordon Allport's work on prejudice to argue that while 'anger' may be a transitory emotion, hate or hostility seems habitual and much longer lasting.
In addition, refer back to research on hate crimes committed towards race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality, and most argue that these sorts of crimes are primarily opportunistic, transitory crimes that are mainly committed by complete strangers to the victim. Even 'spikes' in such crimes may be driven by public anger driven by a highly public or publicised event. However, research on hate crime committed towards disability generally highlights something entirely different.
That these are not always opportunistic events but sometimes targeted events, sustained and repeated over time, sometimes committed by people already known to the victim - such as friends, relatives, partners and carers. So, these are not usually transitory events driven by momentary anger. And as such, I've indeed come to view these events as being driven by 'hate'.
Of course, this phenomena will undoubtedly be much more complex than that, but if 'anger' is transitory and 'hate' habitual and longer lasting, then some disability hate crimes can be argued for now at least, to be driven by the emotion of.....Hate. But what about welfare reform? Prejudice displayed by Britain's establishment towards those in poverty is clearly habitual and longer lasting than 'anger' towards those who some believe to have caused their own poverty by either acting irresponsibly or by not working hard enough.
Many people currently unemployed will have worked before, despite the political and media rhetoric. Those who are 'economically inactive' may also only be inactive for a short space of time - and are often not claiming welfare benefits anyway. And for sure, many of the long-term sick or disabled will have worked most of their lives too. In Britain, disability is not something you are generally born with, but acquire through life itself. Therefore, those who live in 'poverty' in today's Britain, do not deserve to be constantly called lazy and irresponsible - nor beaten with a big stick.
Refer once again to Allport's work on prejudice and we may find five such stages of prejudice within society:
- Antilocution: This stage occurs when an 'in-group' actively promotes negative images of an 'out-group'. These include 'hate speech' but they may simply be jokes made about or stereotypes cultivated around certain social groups. 'Having a laugh' at disabled people's would certainly make this category, but so would political rhetoric that represents disabled people as being lazy, irresponsible and deviant.
- Avoidance: Members of the in-group may actively avoid people in the out-group. No direct harm may be intended. Research indicates that the able-bodied sometimes do actively avoid disabled people. My own research recorded occasions where people in wheelchairs felt that they had actively been excluded from conversations. Then, there is the school incident mentioned earlier, where parents wanted to avoid 'watching' a disabled child perform in a school concert.
- Discrimination: Disabled people prevented from education, jobs or simply from achieving their goals. With welfare reform argued by a number of organisations and charities as actively eroding independent living in many cases. The Work Capability Assessment may also actively discriminate against those with long-standing health problems and disability. Arguably, no other social group in Britain has to go through such a rigorous benefit assessment - especially one of 'functionality' in order to qualify for state help. The able-bodied claiming housing benefits or universal credit and pensioners receiving the state pension do not have to go through such a rigorous assessment. Arguably, they also do not have to face government target setting that refuses large numbers of claims or requests for benefits Disabled people are also sanctioned for often the most minor of perceived DWP 'rule' breaking.
- Violence/Physical attack: Physical harm done to members of the out-group. We know for a fact that some disabled people have committed suicide after coming in contact with the WCA. The WCA has also been officially highlighted as in need of reform in order to be made safer for vulnerable claimants with mental health issues. None of which has arguably happened, to-date. Listen to groups such as DPAC and disabled people not only complain of humiliation but of the physical pain often endured during the assessment process.
- Extermination: The in-group seeks extermination or removal of the out-group. Of course, none of us are going to argue that any UK government has intended to physically exterminate large numbers of disabled people. But there is some evidence of the re-institutionalisation of disabled people, often against their will and back into care homes or similar institutions. The Work Capability Assessment is also argued to be a tool that reclassifies disability or terminal illness as something that is not necessarily a block to working. In many cases, even people dying in hospital have received messages from job-centres cajoling them to turn up for their allotted appointments or have benefits sanctioned. Therefore, the system is effectively geared up first and foremost to remove sick and disabled people from the benefit system rather than supporting and helping people. It may not be 'extermination' - but it is a certainly 'removal' of sorts.
I'm going to leave the reader to make up their own mind on whether UK welfare reform is indeed a 'hate crime'. However, for something to indeed be a crime, there needs to be a criminal offense committed. Certainly, there is hostility, bias and of course, prejudice being quite clearly displayed from the state and it's institutions, towards disabled people. This arguably originates primarily from a view that 'work ethic' is the number one goal, if not the only goal in the political universe. Disabled people are clearly 'economically' valueless if not in employment of some kind. Indeed, up until the 1980's, people in retirement may have often faced the same view.
The thinking and logic behind the Work Capability Assessment certainly seems based largely on the goal of getting more sick and disabled people filling vacant jobs, rather than a concern over benefit fraud. As we can readily witness from reading the Green paper that introduced the WCA in 2006. However, it was a Labour administration that introduced the WCA and arguably one that also viewed the UK's benefit system as encouraging dependency and entitlement. Particularly where sick or disabled people are concerned.
Of course, benefit fraud costs the UK taxpayer £billions, but not as much as official error and arguably not as much as welfare reform itself. But although we can argue that welfare reform opportunistically used the 2008 global financial crash as a ready-made excuse in order to introduce 'austerity' policies, the WCA itself was carefully planned out well before 2008. And it would have been introduced regardless of the global financial meltdown.
Only sick and disabled people go through the WCA. Even people with only a body and a head left, have had to go through this process. And I'm not joking. It is a process that is completely different to previous state work assessments and one where the bar for claiming state welfare is set so unbelievably high. Of course, having a disability doesn't necessarily mean you can't work, but you may need extra support from employers and you may face discrimination for employment and discrimination while in employment. Talk of scrapping minimum wage laws for 'some' disabled people also opens up all disabled people to potential exploitation in the future. Therefore, these are particularly dark times for disabled people in Britain today.
What this 'article' or discussion is primarily aimed at, is to get people talking about government welfare reform in a much fuller way. Than merely accepting tired old arguments that government reform was simply about saving taxpayers money or combating welfare fraud. There is an ideological component at play within current welfare reforms that was on display even before the days of Prime Minster, Margaret Thatcher. A post-war consensus over the provision of state welfare that had been systematically eroded, and to a point where that consensus is now in the completely opposite direction. If we take the reasoning of the WCA as a key indicator of this new thinking or new stance on welfare, it is primarily aimed at keeping sick and disabled people within work, regardless of circumstance. You can be dying but you are still expected to stay at your post. The driving and real reason of reform - a shortage of British workers. And it is such a shortage of labour that it views elderly people as also being the solution of the future.
But it is surely sick and disabled people who have currently borne the brunt of a brutal and hostile government assault. However, it is Britain's political system that has conducted that assault, not just one political party or the other. And a system that has been prone to doing precisely that over the decades and centuries, and primarily over concerns over the 'work ethic'. Read the Beveridge report of 1942 and Beveridge wanted to eradicate the five giant evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Yes, even idleness. The welfare consensus may have ended but concern over the 'work ethic' of British people is always consuming.
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