Opinion

Benefits claimants have been treated as a political punching bag this general election

Mikey Erhardt writes about why the next government must show much more compassion to benefits claimants and disabled people after the general election

rishi sunak at an election rally

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have both come under fire because of their attitudes to social security. Image: Flickr/ Conservative Party

Voters are set to elect a new government. Yet this election cycle has been a bruising affair for the 22 million people in this country who draw on our social security system, with neither major party willing to do much more than treat benefits claimants as a political punching bag. 

“If you can work, you should work,” was how Kier Starmer responded to a question about social security at the last debate. And Rishi Sunak tried to outdo this response adamantly claiming to voters that his disastrous policy proposals would reduce the number of people claiming benefits.  

It is in this political climate that the millions of disabled people and those with long-term health conditions will have to vote.

“Neither of the major parties is willing to acknowledge that until we have a welfare system that recognises the inherent value of human life – beyond reductive ideas of ‘productivity’ – disabled people will remain trapped in a system that ultimately wants to force them into work at the expense of their physical and mental health.” Kieran Lewis, rights and migration policy officer at National Survivor User Network, tells me. 

The idea that disabled people can be forced back into work and that this should be the focus of any social security system is a central tenet of both leading parties’ electoral campaigning. Liz Kendall, from the Labour Party, gave a speech to the Demos think tank in London earlier this year to say: “Under our changed Labour party if you can work, there will be no option of a life on benefits.”  

Meanwhile, former conservative government ministers Jeremy Hunt and Mel Stride wrote a joint article in the Times to continue the never-ending escalation of their anti-social security rhetoric as the general election campaign began. These proposals of “tighter benefit sanctions would force many disabled people into poverty,” Lewis explained. 

Can we be surprised that the debate turned out the way it did when both parties seem to be clear – that it is disabled people who are the problem, and the sole goal for us should be to work, no matter what?  

This rhetoric has had, and will have, severe consequences for our diverse and vibrant community.

The United Nations has found that our social security system has ”a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity.”

It also said: “Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and wilfully avoiding employment (‘skiving off’) and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.”  

But despite the UN report spotlighting how at least 600 disabled people have died at the hands of DWP practice and policy in the last three years, both party leaders are happy to carry on pushing us further and further.  



Is this all we have to choose from? A rock and a hard place? Disabled people have already lost so much – an average of £1,200 a year in support was cut between 2008 and 2019 due to a series of cuts.

We are still going to see the long-term effects of a dangerously mismanaged pandemic and cuts to health and social care, leading to more and more working-age people in the UK (currently a record 2.5 million) becoming disabled or developing long-term health conditions that prevent or restrict their ability to work. Neither party seems to have a plan.  

This election should have been a time for a major overhaul of our punishing social security system. Our leaders should be proud of the essential public service that this social infrastructure upholds. Because at the end of the day, we all deserve the right support when we need it, and our social security system should be bolstered to ensure that everyone does. 

Politicians should debate the best ways to create a system built on respect, dignity, and support that enables us to live the lives we deserve, not imprison us. Promising to introduce a guaranteed decent income – based on 50% of the minimum wage – and doing away with punitive sanctions, benefit caps, bedroom tax, conditionality, a five-week wait for the first payment, and the two-child limit instead of more threats of sanctions. 

It is simple really. As Victoria Naughton, social security and tax officer at the trade union Equity explained: “Reform should be led by disabled people with the social model of disability at its heart.“ 

So what is left is that we recommit as a movement to push through the barriers of this cross-party consensus on inflicting suffering, which is completely out of line with the general public’s views and come together to fight for a better tomorrow – where we all get the support we need.

Mikey Erhardt is a campaigns and policy officer at Disability Rights UK.

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