Into the continuing discussion over benefit reform, and the campaigning against cuts in disability benefits that resulted in the Government being defeated three times in the Lords the other evening, has wandered Spectator editor Fraser Nelson. He comes across as a regular and agreeable bloke, but his piece in the Telegraph really will not do.
The Lords defeats – over plans to means-test Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the disabled after only a year, time-limit ESA for those undergoing cancer treatment, and to restrict ESA for the young disabled – all concerned some of the most vulnerable in society. And, as the man said, there’s more: many disabled people are being “re-assessed” for benefits.
Some of those re-assessments are concluding that those people are fit for work, even though they are seriously unwell: anyone doubting this should read the account of Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner who suffers from severe Crohn’s disease and on occasion cannot look after herself or her children, and who has just had her application for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) rejected.
We are not, repeat not, talking here of people who just need a litte encouragement and a helping of what Nelson repeatedly calls “tough love” to rejoin the workforce. And fiddling his figures does not help the Spectator editor’s case: 1.5 million in the UK are unable to work, but this appears not to be enough for him, so the number becomes 1.7 million in the retelling.
Nelson’s veracity doesn’t improve when considering unemployment rates: “In Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham at least 20 per cent of the population are on out-of-work benefits” he warns, but no area of the UK has a claimant count higher than 12.3%. And if you don’t claim, you don’t get “out-of-work benefits”. And as for his “4.5 million people on the dole”, the number last October was 2.64 million.
In any case, the thrust of Nelson’s piece is directed at those unable to work, and for many of them, the headline “We need some tough love to get people off welfare and into Pret” will seem patronising in the extreme. While the Spectator’s editor would like to see less of those he categorises as “exclusively immigrants” serving him his suitably upmarket snacks, he has a most unfortunate way of opening mouth and inserting boot while attempting to make his case.
Maybe when he has extracted boot from mouth, Fraser Nelson could do a little research into what “disabled” really means to many of those threatened by the proposed round of benefit cuts. Whether he will, though, I doubt: he gives every impression of being the kind of critic who talks with confidence, but does not engage with his targets, and has no intention of so doing.