This post has been inspired by one over on mentallyinteresting.org – the particular post in question is here. As with any post there, I’d strongly recommend you read it, if you haven’t already, partly because my post won’t really make sense without it, and partly because it sets out very clearly the reasons why the argument that all/most/some of the people on Incapacity Benefit (IB) are work-shy leeches is wrong. Basically, you should take it as read that I agree with everything that’s said there.
I realise I’m a bit late coming to this particular party (the original programme went out a week ago), but I wanted to do a post about the ideas that the discussion has sparked off for me. I’ve decided to divide this post into two halves. This half is going to be a bit more general. The second half is going to deal more specifically with my own personal experiences.
First of all, I want to speak up slightly in defence of Marcus Brigstocke. I’ve been a moderately big fan of his since I first heard him on The Now Show on Radio 4, and I’ve watched quite a lot of the episodes of The Late Edition as well. In all that time, the routine on IB is the only one I can think of that he’s so badly misjudged. It seems likely that one of the reasons for this is that last week’s show was (I think) 19th in a run of 20, and that he and his writers were running short of material. That doesn’t let him off the hook, of course – actually it probably makes the whole thing more disappointing. It’s also disappointing that someone whose politics apparently tend so strongly towards the left-wing end of the liberal spectrum should be repeating the kind of opinions that you’d expect to find in the (Brigstocke-despised) Daily Mail.
I don’t actually think he has the kind of dismissive attitude towards health problems that you’d find in The Mail, though. Apart from anything else, he’s talked publicly about his own mental health problems – he mentioned he has suffered from depression on an earlier Late Edition, and in his appearance on Room 101 he talked about his recovery from an eating disorder, and related body image issues.
I felt it was reasonably obvious the routine was about people who weren’t ill at all, rather than those who have “invisible” mental health problems. I also think it’s likely that the audience for the show (which is largely middle-class and liberal, and so probably holds opinions like those in the Guardian) would make the same distinction. But I’m making these points on the basis of knowing quite a lot about his background and that of the show. A casual viewer no doubt would see it in a much more straightforward light, and somebody who actually did feel that IB claimants were liars and cheats would have certainly had their prejudices confirmed.
I think a lot of the criticism that people like me who live on IB face is a result of the way the whole topic is handled in the media. There are some oddities in the way the subject is handled even on the BBC, which isn’t supposed to get involved in the whole rabble-rousing thing that the print media does.
Exhibit A here is this article, which was published on the 28th August last year, and, although it’s a ‘regional’ story, was given enough prominence that I found it and read it at the time. It’s a fairly standard IB story – too many people on the benefit, lots of them aren’t actually medically unfit for work.
Now for exhibit B – a story that was published only 7 days later. This one focuses on the same city (Glasgow), and points out that it has the lowest life expectancy in Scotland, a country which as a whole falls below the average life expectancy for the EU. It would seem reasonable to assume that a city which has such a low average age of death also has high rates of chronic ill-health, and that these problems affect people at an earlier age than elsewhere in the EU.
Logic would seem to insist that the two stories are related – high rates of chronic ill-health amongst a comparatively young population leading directly to a high rate of medical incapacity amongst the working age population. But this connection never seems to get made – it certainly isn’t made by the BBC in either of these articles. IB is always treated as a “social” issue that needs to be addressed either by ‘helping claimants back to work’, or ‘getting tough with benefit cheats’. It’s never treated as a medical issue that can best be addressed by tackling the underlying health problems in the population.
This is even more the case with the print media. It’s no secret that six of the daily newspapers in the UK are on the right of the political spectrum (Mail, Express, Telegraph, Times, Sun, Star), and only three are on the left (Guardian, Independent, Mirror). This is probably because the people who own newspapers (or who manage the companies that own them) are wealthy. Because they’re rich, they are less likely to have a personal need for a social safety-net (or a publicly-funded health service, for that matter). Equally, because they’re rich, they’re more likely to pay a larger amount of money in tax. This means that they have a vested interest in trying to create a low-tax, low-social-welfare society.
The problem they face in trying to achieve this is that a belief in a fair chance for everyone is, I think, a fundamental part of the British mindset. This explains why the basic principles of the NHS are so overwhelmingly popular, and also why right-wing newspapers that want to undermine it have been forced into using an indirect strategy rather than attacking it head-on. So, for example, they might choose to argue that the NHS is inefficient because it’s publicly owned, or that it has the wrong medical priorities, or that the people who work for it are lazy, incompetent and greedy.
But the same right-wing newspapers also use the belief in fairness as a way of attacking the benefit system. It’s for this reason that they always try to push the idea that IB claimants are lazy and work-shy, or, to quote from the Daily Mail story I link to above, that ‘incapacity benefit has become an alternative to Jobseeker’s Allowance for those who do not want to work’. This is obviously designed to produce a response along the lines of “I don’t want to go to work either, but I just have to get on and do it, so why shouldn’t these people?” There are examples of similar responses (and opposing ones as well) in the comments on the article.
Obviously, one of the long-term consequences of stories like this is to increase public pressure for “reform” of the benefit system that will make it much harder for anyone to claim IB. This will inevitably lead to some people who desperately need help failing to find it, either because they come to believe the “work-shy” propaganda they read about themselves, or just because they are unable to drag themselves through the increasingly tough and intimidating application process. This doesn’t seem to be a concern for those who are the strongest advocates of such reforms, and it seems to me that this is because, despite what they claim, they aren’t motivated by the desire to see help provided to those who are in need, but instead by a desire to see the “tax burden” reduced, whatever the cost.
Of course, one of the other long-term consequences of stories like this is to increase the level of mistrust and suspicion faced by people who are genuinely unable to work, particularly those who don’t have an obvious physical problem. I think this sowing of social mistrust has a lot of fairly undesirable consequences for everybody (the healthy as well as the unhealthy), but it has a particularly devastating effect on the lives of those who are most affected by it. Although I think I’ve been reasonably lucky in my experiences, it’s certainly had an impact on my life. I intend to talk a little about my personal experiences of these kinds of issues in the second half of this post, which will hopefully go up later today, or, maybe, tomorrow.