The demonisation of benefit claimants affects us all. We should help disabled people – instead we wrongly accuse them
David’s world was torn apart one morning by an envelope on his doormat. The letter was from the Department for Work and Pensions, and its wording was cryptic: “We need to speak to you about your benefit amount.” But thanks to his years of volunteering as a welfare rights adviser, he was all too aware of what it could mean: he was being investigated for benefit fraud.
David needs his disability benefits. As well as having severe depression and anxiety, he has multiple physical health problems: bowel and heart disease, and a prolapsed disc in his spine. Heavy duty painkillers barely take the edge off his arthritis. Still, last summer he was summoned to the jobcentre for a compliance interview. David was informed that he’d been reported twice by members of the public for potential benefit fraud: once over the government’s benefit fraud hotline and once online.
Why? He was spotted at a nearby beach with his ill father, and had been seen on a bus to the city centre. “It was often to pick up a prescription. The bus stop is 100 metres from my house,” he explains to me. “I have crutches to use if [my health] flares up.”
You are likely to have seen many benefit fraud stories in the last few years. It features everywhere you look in the media, from the BBC’s programme Saints and Scroungers to the “shameless” and “swindling” families often plastered across the Daily Mail.
Stories such as David’s – of ordinary honest disabled people put through hell – rarely make the news. But he is far from an anomaly. In 2016 the Observer revealed through freedom of information requests that out of a million alleged cases of benefit fraud put forward by the public between 2010 and 2015, a staggering 85% were completely unsubstantiated. Last month the Independent reported there had been almost 300,000 public tip-offs on benefit fraud in the past two years that had resulted in no action due to a lack of evidence.
This is spy-on-your-neighbour Britain, where the sick individual with crutches isn’t a fellow citizen who should be offered help but a scrounger to dob in to the authorities. This has hardly happened by chance. For decades, the benefit fraudster has been the villain of choice for certain sections of the press and the political class. The left has by no means been immune. While previous Labour governments launched large-scale redistribution through the tax credit system, they never did enough to challenge the narrative perpetrated by the press of workshy claimants.
But more recently the scrounger narrative has sharpened as the right has carefully positioned the benefit fraudster as a natural bedfellow of austerity, the scapegoat to justify the obliteration of social security in the last eight years. Conservatives have created a witch-hunt against people on benefits. As the first cuts to disability benefits were introduced amid talk of the bloated welfare bill, the DWP ran advertising campaigns telling us that we, the public, had an important role to play in identifying benefit cheats. National newspapers ran campaigns calling on “all Brits to be patriotic and report any cheats you know”. All are fully aware that benefit fraud accounts for just 1.1% of the total benefits bill.
Government ministers have also adopted rhetoric suggesting disabled people are faking in order to get social security, and the majority of new claimants of sickness benefits are actually well enough to do some work. Theresa May’s former policy chief, George Freeman, said welfare should go to the“really disabled”. Esther McVey, the newly appointed work and pensions secretary, once bragged that she’d go after the “bogus disabled” while abolishing the lifeline of disability living allowance in her former role as minister for disabled people.
This isn’t simply rhetoric, it goes to the heart of government policy. Private companies are hired to push the sick through assessments so inaccurate that this week it emerged the government will have to review the benefits of 1.6 million disabled people that they may have wrongly removed, while claimants are sanctioned, often for reasons outside of their control, to the extent that people are left starving.
In this anti-welfare climate, it doesn’t actually matter if someone is lying to claim benefits or not. By dint of receiving “taxpayers’” money, they are still said to be cheating “hardworking families”. At a time when low pay is leading to a state of chronic insecurity, this sort of divide and rule tactic is particularly dangerous, as workers are sold the lie that the reason their wages can’t pay the rent is because the paraplegic person across the street is living the life of Riley. In reality, they’re struggling to afford to eat. Just this month, research found the majority of disability benefit claimants are being left without enough to live on.
How we treat benefit claimants speaks to wider societal negative attitudes towards people in poverty – a culture in which those who are unable to pay the rent or afford food for their children are increasingly seen as being there because of their own failings. We are witnessing individualism at its most rampant – a scale of dehumanisation that has reached such heights that even a wheelchair user can be judged as “undeserving”.
It’s time to counter this more effectively. When the public respond to the rightwing benefit scrounger narrative by snooping on their neighbour, it’s the job of the left to create an alternative argument. In conjunction with the Frameworks Institute, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is running a Talking About Poverty project to understand how people who care about poverty can communicate about it in a better way. This is exactly the conversation we should be having. Part of this must be about setting out a positive, collectivist view of the welfare state that sees a social safety net as an ideal to protect all of us, rather than a national drain for a few to exploit. It must also involve addressing the routes of people’s insecurity, from low wages to unaffordable housing, while countering longstanding prejudice towards disabled people.
David was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing with his benefits but, seven months on, the ordeal has taken its toll. He’s now under the care of a psychiatric nurse and is trying to move house to feel safe from his neighbours. The other day, he tells me, an ex-colleague shouted “scrounger” at him as he walked into the local GP’s surgery. “Right now, I’m almost terrified to go out,” he says.
David’s name has been changed to protect his identity
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist