Social Justice

Keir Starmer says benefits lack 'dignity' – but real indignity is Britain's broken welfare system

Keir Starmer has said that 'handouts from the state' do not offer the same 'dignity' as working for a wage, but charities say the 'real indignity' is in a benefits system which is leaving millions of people going without food and other essentials

keir starmer

Keir Starmer has outlined changes he plans to make to support people into work. Image: Flickr/ Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has said benefits offer people less “dignity” than work, prompting fears that Labour may take a tough approach to social security in the UK.

Outlining his plans for “wealth creation” in The Telegraph, the Labour leader said “handouts from the state do not nurture the same sense of self-reliant dignity as a fair wage”.

But charities have said that the “real indignity” is in the UK’s “broken benefits system” which is leaving millions of people in poverty and struggling to afford the essentials they need to survive.

Both Labour and the Conservatives intend to push people into work and reduce the number of people claiming benefits, including those who are disabled and ill.

Starmer said that “it isn’t fair for working people to lose more of their money in a cost of living crisis” and said he plans to “make work pay, so people have the wages and security they need”.

Although he promised that Labour would “never turn [its] backs on people who are struggling”, his words have provoked concern.

Claire Atchia McMaster, director of income and external affairs at Turn2us, said: “People across the UK want to see a system that supports and reassures anyone who might be struggling to get by. Like our NHS, this is something we can all be proud of.”

Every month, the charity hears from hundreds of people going without food, energy and heating because benefits are too low to cover essentials. It has also found that stigma around welfare prevents people from accessing the support that they need, and stigma is heightened by rhetoric such as that used by Starmer.

“Contrary to the notion that state support strips away dignity, true dignity comes from knowing our social security system will support us in times of need,” McMaster said. “We urge all political parties to listen to people’s experiences and commit to designing a fair and compassionate system that supports anyone who needs it.”



There are more than 2.8 million people out of work due to long-term sickness, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 

This is leading to an increasing welfare bill and gaps in the workforce which politicians are keen to address, but research shows that a punitive approach to benefits can push people further away from work and deeper into poverty.

It also risks further stigmatising benefits, meaning people are less likely to seek help when they are struggling.

Charities are particularly concerned about the impact Starmer’s plans might have on disabled people and those who are too ill to work.

James Taylor, director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, said: “There are a million disabled people who want to work but are denied the opportunity. But not everyone can work, and life costs a lot more when you’re disabled, which is why benefits are a crucial source of support for many disabled people.”

On average, a household with a disabled person spends around £975 more every month for extra costs like powering equipment and heating bills, according to Scope.

The Big Issue has reported extensively on the harrowing experiences faced by people navigating the disability benefits system.

“The real indignity is in the fact our broken benefits system means disabled people are going for days without food, and unable to afford to charge wheelchairs and hoists,” Taylor said. “We want the next government to ensure those of us who want to work can do so, and fix our broken benefits system.”

Half of jobseekers with complex disabilities feel they don’t have the support and equipment they need to look for a job, according to disability charity Sense.

Almost a third (31%) said that having assistive technology in their Jobcentre would help them find work, but no Jobcentres across the country have this available.

Employers are also failing to make work accessible – more than half (52%) of people with complex disabilities in work havetaken on a less challenging job because their needs were not being met.

Harriet Edwards, head of policy at disability charity Sense, said: “Far more support is needed to give disabled jobseekers the best chances of finding the right job for them.

“Forcing people to find work without investing in assistive technology, training for assessors, and holding employers to account is just shifting the issues onto disabled people rather than creating lasting change. Whoever forms the next government needs to urgently tackle these barriers, to give disabled jobseekers and workers the specialist support they need.”

Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy advisor at Disability Rights UK, added: “Labour and all the other major political parties continue not to explicitly mention the often desperate needs and inequalities affecting disabled people – who make around up 25% of the population.

“Those disabled people who could undertake some paid work would like to do so. But economic growth in the abstract will not help them achieve this. The only way to close the disability employment gap is to remove the many systemic barriers that we face – poverty, inadequate housing, education, social care and healthcare and the lack of reasonable adjustments by employers.

“The stigmatising labelling of those who are ‘economically inactive’ must also stop. As well as the use of glib statements like “state handouts offer people less ‘dignity’ than earning a living through work. Some Disabled people are unable to undertake paid work.

“This doesn’t that they cannot play a valuable role within their local communities and society. Disabled people deserve and are entitled to sufficient financial and other social support so that they can do this. Whoever wins the election needs to commit to ending the culture which paints disabled people as scroungers lazing around on benefits.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall said earlier this year there would be “no option for a life on benefits” under a Labour government, while setting out plans to encourage unemployed young people into work. Her predecessor Jonathan Ashworth also said there would be continued conditionality.

But Labour has also seemed to take a more compassionate approach than the Tories, with new local plans to get more people with health conditions and disabilities into work.

Ayla Ozmen, director of policy and campaigns at anti-poverty charity Z2K, said: “The social security system should be there for all of us, just like the NHS.

“The inadequacy of current rates and the lack of trust in the system means that the current social security system fails to treat people with the dignity we all deserve. But we hope that any future government will look to address these issues. Failing to do so is neither good for individuals nor the economy.”

Universal credit currently falls short by around £120 every month of the money people need to afford the essentials like food, heating and toiletries.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Trussell Trust and the Big Issue, backed by more than 100 organisations, are calling for an ‘essentials guarantee’ to be implemented into universal credit so people can at least afford the basics they need to live.

The organisations also urge the next government to take a more compassionate approach to pushing people into work.

Helen Barnard, director of policy at the Trussell Trust, said she agrees with Starmer that “many people are shut out of work by inflexible jobs and a lack of support and this needs to change”, with new legislation to ensure job security and workers’ rights.

“However, social security will remain a vital lifeline for people who are unwell, disabled, or caring for others,” Barnard said. “Many are in low paid work which does not provide a steady or sufficient wage to protect them from hardship. Others are unable to work or face additional costs due to disability.

“Enabling more people to work and improving job security and wages is crucial, but it does not remove the vital importance of a social security system that is fit for purpose, treats people with dignity and protects any of us facing tough times from going without essentials.”

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