Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that she will scrap punitive benefit sanctions and the discredited Work Capability Assessment, at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. The pledge was echoed by newly re-elected party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his main speech to the conference. He said a Labour government would be “scrapping the punitive sanctions regime and the degrading work capability assessment.”
Here is a transcript of Debbie’s excellent speech:
“It is a real honour to stand here before you as the Party’s spokesperson for Work and Pensions, my first time on the Conference platform.
Conference, we live in troubling times. Our nation seems more adrift than ever. Our troubles often seem insurmountable.
But when I’m faced with complexity and difficulties, I recall some wise words: “The more complicated something is, the more important it is to define what your simple truths are.”
So, what are my ‘simple truths’? First, I am a socialist. I believe that society is stronger – can achieve more – when we stand together, and that every citizen has an equal stake in our future.
It is to me a simple truth that a nation aspiring to decency and fairness does not punish the disabled and disadvantaged.
It is to me a simple truth that the way a government prioritises finite finances reveals its authentic self.
So when this Tory Government imposes the bedroom tax on disabled people but gives tax breaks to millionaires, then their own simple truths are laid bare.
It is to me a simple truth that where the dignity of rewarding work is deprived to millions through a lack of quality jobs, the rise of zero-hours contracts, and indignities heaped on loyal work forces by the likes of Sports Direct and BHS, then social and economic progress is stunted.
And it is also a simple truth that targeting the most vulnerable in our society damages the least vulnerable, too. If you haven’t already, please read the Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level.
This shows that societies with a wider gap between rich and poor experience higher levels of infant mortality, lower life expectancy, poorer mental health, and less social mobility.
To me, as a former academic, it is a simple truth that evidence-based policy must replace policy-based evidence. That’s why I’m a socialist. Because all the evidence points to another simple truth.
By building a society where the hope of progress is genuine and realistic and not forlorn, where every citizen feels themselves an equal participant in our nation, and where government is seen to be working for everyone, we create a virtuous circle of growth, stability and contentment.
For all the Prime Minister’s warm words, it is by her actions we will judge her. She has been a senior member of a government that has chosen to visit austerity on the most vulnerable in society. She has been a senior member of a government that continues to rain down on our education system ideological reforms with little or no evidentiary justification. And she has been a senior member of a government where the number of foodbanks increased ten-fold in 4 years.
Conference, inequality is not inevitable. We are all here precisely because we know that change is both possible and necessary.
Today there are 3.9 million children living in poverty, and children’s charities are estimating that will be 5 million. Conference, children being in poverty affects not just their childhood but their whole future life chances.
And the five million disabled people living in poverty because of the extra costs that they face associated with their disability, is set to increase as a result of even more cuts in social security support.
While I am proud of the last Labour Government’s success at reducing pensioner poverty, women and the lowest paid remain at high risk of falling into poverty in their retirement.
This injustice is being extended to 2.6 million women born in the 1950s, who have been short-changed by this Government bringing forward their state pension age.
The pensions system that I want to see ensures dignity in retirement, and a proper reflection of the contribution that older people have made, and continue to make, to our society.
This Government has fostered an insidious culture of fear and blame to justify their programme of cuts, deliberately attempting to vilify social security claimants as the new undeserving poor.
I wanted to show you the trailer from Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ as I think it sets out so clearly much of that is wrong with the current social security system.
I believe there is a better way, a fairer way. One where Britain is the centre of a new industrial revolution with industries and technologies as diverse as our people.
To achieve this, we need to invest in our greatest asset – our citizens – nurturing a highly skilled workforce and rebuilding our country.
For too long the labour market has been dominated by poor quality, low paid, insecure jobs resulting in two thirds of children living in poverty coming from working families. Four in every five people working in low paid jobs are still stuck in them ten years later.
For those unable to work through illness or disability, we need to transform our social security system to one that is efficient, responsive, and provides basic support. Time and time again, I hear of how worthless the system makes people feel. For the vast majority of people who have paid into it all their working lives, this is like a slap in the face. People often feel desperate, have been left destitute and have even died.
I want to change the culture of our social security system and how the public see it. I believe that, like the NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life were we to fall on hard times or become incapacitated, giving us a hand up, not a hand out.
Work should always pay more than being on social security, but being in work shouldn’t mean living in poverty and neither should being on social security.
The Labour Party has already pledged to get rid of the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. But I want to go further.
I want to scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment and replace it with a system based on personalised, holistic support, one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.
This Government’s punitive sanctions system must go too, so Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.
I want to see disabled people better supported into and at work. We will halve the Disability Employment Gap – and when we say it we mean it. And we will tackle other labour market inequalities too.
I believe in a fair and just Britain, where everyone can get on and no-one is left behind.
Labour’s policies will deliver prosperity for all and tackle the inequalities and poverty in Britain today.
I challenge the Government to deliver theirs.”
I just wanted to add a note of clarification, as some people are claiming that it isn’t the intention of the Labour party to scrap sanctions entirely. There has always been a degree of benefit conditionality, since the inception of the welfare state. This has not previously been particularly problematic, and a reasonable degree of government accountability and protecting the “public purse” has always been expected from the public.
However, the Conservatives introduced a very harsh and punitive regime in 2012, extending the use of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents and sick and disabled people. The severity and length of the sanctions was also radically increased, and as we know from evidence gathered since 2012, it is these changes that have caused so much hardship and distress for many people.
We also know that sanctions are very often applied unfairly, and that one of the main aims of them is to cut costs and reduce the welfare state. Instead of supporting citizens, our social security is now about coercing citizens into “job seeking” rule-following and conformity, regardless of the employment market conditions and other social and economic constraints.
The Conservatives introduced these changes because they think that coercive “behavioural change” techniques may align citizens’ behaviours with neoliberal outcomes. Their sanction regime is founded on a nudge theory – that we have a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion. The Conservatives expect that by manipulating this alleged bias – using the fear of financial loss – people will comply and get a job. That assumes, of course, that the cause of unemployment is something that happens within an individual, and not because of political decision-making and socioeconomic conditions.
In this context, sanctions are a punishment for non-compliance with politically defined outcomes, directed entirely by economic dogma. It’s a form of operant conditioning. It does not take into consideration the real structural socioeconomic barriers that people face in finding appropriate work. Instead the individual is held responsible for the failings of a competitive, market-based system.
The stigmatisation of people needing social security – the political and cultural use of dehumanising metaphors and rhetoric – has been used to justify the ideologically-driven dismantling of the welfare state and the other gains of our post-war settlement. The punitive sanction regime is part of this process of political demolition. This is clearly a political misuse of “psychology”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a technocratic application of techniques of persuasion: the marketing strategy and packaging for controversial “small state” and authoritarian neoliberal policies.
Debbie acknowledges much of this. She has promised to repeal the Conservative’s punitive sanction regime and the WCA. Her speech indicates clearly the direction of travel for the Labour party.
I welcome that. I’m certain that many others will. It’s long overdue.
I don’t make any money from my work. But you can help me by making a donation to ensure I can continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.