I am not an underclass

By DeusExMacintosh

Disability sucks. I just thought you should know that.

It’s sometimes painful, always inconvenient and inclined to bite gaping holes out of your self esteem. Most people are pretty reliable: they get up in the morning, go to work or school during the week and kick back on the weekends doing activities they enjoy once the daily maintenance tasks (literal and financial housekeeping etc) are complete. However once you are disabled, you are no longer ‘most people’.

Supposedly the most damaging aspect of Disability is isolation. Sometimes this is physical – when a disability limits your ability to get out of the house; other times it is social – when you are so busy meeting the additional needs of your condition/illness/injury that there simply isn’t time or energy left to maintain relationships properly.

As a society we are at least beyond the stage of say the 1930s where those with disabilities were considered “socially dead” and restricted to a role of utter dependency and silence by the conviction that physical handicap was somehow a sign of intellectual damage.

What I’ve personally found most isolating about being disabled has been the change from working full-time to relying on benefits. As a benefits claimant I’m “politically dead” and restricted to a role of utter dependency and silence by the conviction that the source of my income is somehow a sign of moral damage. Once you rely on welfare you’re no longer ‘most people’.


Thanks to SL I had unprecedented access to a senior politican last week. Vicariously of course, but then these days most of what I consider my “life” is experienced vicariously, either online or through friends. You’ve read her piece David Cameron Visits Brasenose? Well that was MY question she was kind enough to ask.

I though it was important to ask because the question itself reminds policy promoters that their rhetoric effects real people. The idea that people commonly fake illness or injury to go “on the sick” isn’t in itself new, I ran into it personally ten years ago as my mobility declined and I started my grand tour of neurologists: my landlady decided that I was too young to be really disabled and evicted me. Unfortunately this story has been used deliberately as a tool to silence criticism of the welfare reforms forced through over the last two years, particularly the abolition of Incapacity Benefit.

It’s hardly coincidence that the government has been rolling out a massive national advertising campaign against benefit fraud during the same period. The BBC’s “Saints and Scroungers” series which followed the work of fraud investigation departments – three convictions an episode for thirteen episodes – simply offered a new placement for the same government advertising. So much for editorial independence.

Benefit Thieves – We’re Closing In

Now you wont find me defending dishonesty or denying that benefit fraud exists, what I will question however is the differing treatment people receive and assumptions made about their character based on the source of their income. The creepy 1984-style “we’re closing in” adverts made a point of emphasizing the surveillance powers available to both local authorities and the DWP. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that gives them the right to covertly follow and photograph suspects and commandeer their banking and utility records, was passed into law with barely a whimper in 2000 as an anti-fraud/anti-terror measure. It only aroused popular criticism when the same powers were used against parents gaming the “catchment area” system for school admission.

If it is acceptable and desirable to use this level of surveillance in the fight against benefit fraud why aren’t these powers available to the Inland Revenue when investigating tax fraud? Why is self-assessment considered an acceptable basis for a tax return but an unforgivable invitation to fraud when the application is for a disability-related benefit?


This double standard isn’t imaginary, though it doesn’t tend to get much coverage beyond left leaning publications like The Guardian .

Research earlier this year conducted by the Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked people to estimate the social cost of benefit fraud relative to that of tax evasion – and their answers misfired by an order of magnitude that was laughable.

The majority thought benefit cheats cost more than tax evaders; in fact benefit fraud is estimated by the Department for Work and Pensions to cost £800m a year, while personal tax avoidance was thought to be running at £13bn.

This misconception is more troubling than assumptions about middle-class honesty: if the taxpayer is thought to be broadly honest, while society’s net recipients are all crooks, then clearly that will have an impact on our readiness to pay tax and support even the most modest redistribution.

It’s hard to argue that fraud is only a minor problem when the latest DWP estimates for 2008/09 suggest that £3 billion of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to a combination of fraud and error… unless you also notice that this constitutes only 2.2% of the overall benefit bill. [The fraud estimate for Incapacity Benefit in isolation is only 3.5% – the lowest of all the continuously monitored benefits – while Pension Credit is put at 5.1%. No mass public condemnation of rorting wrinklies seems imminent but perhaps they’re saving that for when the pensions crisis really bites.]

Not that the Guardian hasn’t joined most of the press in drawing a very long bow over the applicant failure rates for the new Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – now replacing Incapacity Benefit – in the course of its first year. Despite their Society section having one of the best articles describing the intricacies and contradictions of the new medical assessments, it didn’t stop political editor Patrick Wintour attempting to apply ESA failure rates to migrating IB claimants without considering IB failure rates …

More than two-thirds of applicants for a new sickness-related benefit are failing in their claims, suggesting many of the 2.6 million existing incapacity benefit claimants will be forced on to a lower level of benefit when they are assessed over the next two to three years…

Overall, the research found only 5% of those seeking ESA were thought totally incapable of being ready for work and so entitled to the full benefit of £108.55. A further 11%, thought potentially capable of work, were put on a rate of £89.80 a week, and were expected to co-operate with efforts to ready themselves for work. A third of the initial claimants dropped out before completing the claim, and a further third were seen as fit for work.

… but at least the broadsheets acknowledged that the whole definition of “fit to work” had been changed. At the tabloid end of the spectrum, editors were a bit clearer about the message these results sent to them..

LABOUR’S failure to crack down on scroungers has let three-quarters of incapacity benefit claimants get away with faking their illnesses.
Daily Express

Just one in six incapacity benefit claimants ‘is genuine’ as tough new test reveals TWO MILLION could be cheating
Daily Mail


At the time ESA was launched I wondered why the government was needlessly duplicating the cost of privatized medical assessment in setting up a whole new benefit when they could have simply used the receipt of Disability Living Allowance to determine whether an IB claimant was genuine or not (DLA has had privatised medical inspections for over a decade and is paid alongside most income benefits to meet the additional costs of care and/or transport incurred when you’re disabled.)

Even if the numbers were still too high they could restrict eligibility further by dropping out those who only received the lower-rates of the two components… but that would have been validation of one of the benefits it has since turned out they were also planning to scrap (a fact not openly admitted until ministers changed their minds).

Though impressed by some of the Conservative moves towards openness about their priorities, I find Mr Cameron’s agreement that politicians need to be more careful with their statements to be somewhat disingenuous. Politicans are very careful with their statements. These are carefully scripted by an army of special advisors… take this choice nugget from Theresa May, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The Government needs to get to grips with Britain’s benefit culture and radically reform our welfare system. It’s hardly surprising that so many people spend their lives on benefits when in some cases they can get as much money from benefits as many people earn in work. Things really have to change.

Hard to argue with that one as most people would agree that people who work should end up with more money than people who don’t, but the solution is left carefully unstated.

The Right hear, “The unworthy poor are receiving too much money. Cut their benefits!”

Libertarians hear, “Low income earners are paying tax too early. Raise the personal threshold over £10,000!”

The Old Left hear, “The minimum wage is too low. Raise it with new legislation!”

The New Left hear, “The minimum wage is too low. Raise it by restricting low skilled immigration!”

This is why you hear so much about the problems and so little about the solutions when parties are campaigning. The problem alienates no-one whereas the choice of solution may.


The Conservatives recently published a cheeky little league table that “ranks constituencies according to the proportion of working-age adults receiving incapacity, lone parent or jobseeker benefit”. 189 of the 200 seats with highest rates of adults on benefits for being incapacitated, unemployed or single-parents are held by labour, only 4 by the conservatives. It was accompanied by the Theresa May soundbite I’ve just mentioned. Though the right wing press cheerfully pounced on the idea that Labour was in power thanks to the “Welfare Vote”, actual Conservative statements seem to have left this very carefully unmentioned.

Here’s a tip: if you genuinely think a particular selection of the electorate has control of a particular seat, it might be a good idea to not insult them during the runup to a general election. If not, then you have no right to use the association with them as a smear against your political rivals. This ‘nod and a wink’ politics is extremely annoying. A smear inferred is no less a smear, particularly if not especially, when it’s against you as a person.

If Mr Cameron really believes that there is a “welfare vote”, then how about publicly acknowledging the electoral significance of that section of the British electorate in receipt of State Benefits in a positive way? After the party conference rhetoric where Tories claimed to be the “party of the poor” I’d rather hoped this would be the new direction they were taking but that might be the residual middle-class expectation of fairness showing.

I receive benefits because I can’t work full-time not because I lack the education, intelligence or skills I had when working full-time as a journalist (though sure, the ability to walk and remain upright is pretty much a goner at this stage). I may be overweight and live in social housing but the accent is unmistakeable.


SL always says that her “libertarian exception” is compulsory voting. Having grown up in Australia she has decided that it discourages politicians from demonising any particular minority group by making them pay at the ballot box and that it is unfortunate this mechanism isn’t available in the UK. But Britain got rid of Census Suffrage and the property qualification in 1918 for men and 1928 for women, so I’d like to end my post with this timely reminder for Mr Cameron and other politicians of whatever party.

We listen.
We remember.
We vote.


  1. Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:33 am | Permalink


    1. There was an irony alert. I never said demonisation is fine. I just said that demonisation was a symptom of being an underclass. The difference between us is perhaps that I’m a Marxist without a belief in the inevitability of the progressive dialectic. I believe in classes but don’t think people are to be blamed for the class they are in whereas you seem to believe that members of an underclass are bad and want to say that you are not a member of an underclass because you are not bad.

    2. First of all (I’m talking about Australia here but I doubt if the UK is much different), on the tax front, you have to submit a tax return. If you don’t, you will (eventually) be chased up for one and prosecuted for not submitting one. Once you have submitted one, or in some cases even if you don’t, the tax office can make an assessment – if that is done in the absence of a return you can bet that it will be pretty high, though usually the tax office prefers first to prosecute for not putting in a return. If the local tax office chooses to audit me on my return, then it can plough through my accounts because I will have to produce them, and so far as they are reliant on records derived from my personal bank accounts (well: I’m a sole trader, so they are just my bank accounts) I will have to cough up those records. If I don’t, any expenses I claim will fail. If it is a question of my receipts, then you are right, there isn’t an automatic licence to snoop without my knowing (at least, I don’t know of one), but there is an irresistible power to snoop should the state so choose.

    There is a distinction, for what it is worth, in that in the case of tax the state is talking about taking money from me (albeit that I have an obligation to tell it the truth to enable it to do so) whereas in the case of welfare benefits the state is auditing the entitlement to money it has paid or is paying out.

    3. I don’t think it is a question of what I would tolerate or am comfortable with or not: like you, I would be lumped with the law, whatever it was.

    Funnily enough, people who wish to disguise receipts generally don’t bank them, but if the tax office decides to take an attitude to them, the surveillance can be and often is pretty comprehensive. The tax office also has other powers, such as making its own assessment of your income or GST [=VAT] liability, which will pretty soon oblige you to produce your private information if you think you can prove a lesser figure.

    [Incidentally, when I drive it is a 1999 VW Golf hatchback. It is not in any way a vehicle for which I claim any kind of tax deduction or expense. At present the locks on both the front doors are broken and if I want to lock it I have to climb in through the boot to get back in. Just thought you might like to know.]

    4. As to licences to snoop, you don’t need any licence or warrant to do quite a lot of surveillance of somebody in the manner suggested by the advertisements, and if there is a crime suspected, a warrant will generally be issued without your having any chance to oppose it. That’s the same for everyone.

    5. I can remember the names of some of those Sydney barristers. There was Mr Archer, and Mr Stevens and Mr Cummins, and your links have helpfully reminded me of a few more. That’s why the tax office runs a slide rule over our tax returns. However, just to say there are other people who should be investigated (and of course, these people were investigated eventually – that’s how they got caught) isn’t really an answer to the question of whether welfare recipients need to be investigated.

    6. However, I agree with SL (as you will see from the comment that seems never to have seen the light of day) that wholesale investigation of welfare recipients isn’t cost-effective.

    7. An anecdotal aside: On the last occasion I went as duty barrister to the Downing Centre in Sydney (I do this 4 or 5 days a year; it’s a voluntary, ie unpaid, commitment) I represented a single mother who had understated her income to Centrelink and was consequently overpaid $7.5K or so over 2 years. She was only caught as a result of data matching with her bank account. You may or may not be happy to hear that although a conviction was recorded and an order made for reparation (I unsuccessfully resisted that on the grounds that the state has ample administrative powers to garnish her income and she has negligible assets) she was given a good behaviour bond and no other punishment.

    8. (This is more at SL) I actually don’t think it is possible to come up with a welfare system which eliminates the category “cheat” even though I think that there is an argument that it is about as meaningful as “queue jumper” in refugee law. For one thing, the welfare system is always so mean that some people have little choice but to cheat (if they can) if they are caught in its toils on a long-term basis. If you are long-term unemployed and a private tenant, you simply cannot live other than quite miserably – ie, in a rooming house full of schizophrenics and alcoholics – on what the welfare state allows you – at least that’s the case in Sydney. That sounds an awful lot like being a member of an underclass to me.

  2. Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I believe in classes but don’t think people are to be blamed for the class they are in whereas you seem to believe that members of an underclass are bad and want to say that you are not a member of an underclass because you are not bad.

    No, what I’m saying is that being a member of an underclass is not proof in itself that you are “bad”, therefore demonisation on the basis of belonging to said underclass is wrong. I am NOT an underclass… I am an individual and you can’t make generalisations about my character, motives or behaviours simply because I’m on welfare. You can’t make them about anyone else on welfare either. My position is consistent.

    Demonisation is a symptom of any ‘out-grouping’ process. Targets can be any class of people, not just those with less financial or social power. The bourgeois were successfully demonised in communist cultures because they had MORE financial and social power. German Jews were demonised in Nazi Germany despite being fully integrated throughout society at all levels. These two are examples of what can happen when casual out-grouping becomes institutionalised by the state.

    Hence SL’s question: in what way is creating this out-group addressing the actual problem of having a welfare system we can’t afford to pay for?

    [Incidentally, when I drive it is a 1999 VW Golf hatchback. It is not in any way a vehicle for which I claim any kind of tax deduction or expense. At present the locks on both the front doors are broken and if I want to lock it I have to climb in through the boot to get back in. Just thought you might like to know.]

    So I guess you must get a bit irritated when people generalise barristers as dishonest, overpaid, self indulgent people who give nothing back to society and have a serious ‘luxury brand’ fetish. (I once had a temp job in Ian Callinan’s chambers. Can you tell?) Hold that feeling, it’s making my point.

    You don’t like it when it’s done to you. I don’t like it when it’s done to me. The difference is that while we’re both subject to this kind of “natural” demonisation in casual conversation between individuals (in the pub, say) there isn’t a co-ordinated campaign of political rhetoric and advertising designed to legitimise YOU as a target.

    So why the hell should I have to put up with it?

  3. Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    You guess wrong. Stereotypes about lawyers don’t particularly upset me: I expect them. But in the context of your argument which at that point became an argument implicitly about me your Porsche point warranted a response.

    Of course, we’re all individuals [cue Life of Brian] though across populations we’re probably less special than we like to think [cue: Avenue Q, if you’ve seen it].

    I’ve already said that I think the out-group demonisation about welfare recipients is mostly huff and puff to gratify the working poor – a bit like tabloid law and order campaigns really. The state can’t possibly target all welfare recipients, it just isn’t worth it, but they want to make people think they do. For one thing, the only real way to contain welfare abuse is to internalise compliance in the subject population – that will get the averages down even though it won’t deter the bold, shameless, reckless or desperate. It’s pathetic it’s done and because it’s been given to the advertising wallahs to do its even more pathetic.

    Yes, you can get indignant about it – I don’t like it either though I guess my response to it is less personal, but my starting point about whether you are part of an underclass doesn’t seem to me to be affected by the rightness or wrongness of such demonisation. I’m not even sure if I agree that we (leaving aside distinctions between the UK and Australia) have a welfare system that we cannot afford (on reflection, I think we have a welfare system which we don’t spend enough on), as opposed to a welfare system that taxpayers or national insurance contributors (really the same thing because the contribution is government mandated and compulsory) would like to pay less for.

  4. Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    PS: would you mind undoing the italics after “Avenue Q”? They’re a bit exhausting if they persist to the end of the comment.

  5. Posted December 3, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    It was not personalised, I said “a” porsche, not “your” porsche. I could have used a second home on the beach or a B&O media-system in my example (the latter would be my personal object of luxe lust, I have no way of knowing where your personal preferences lie) THE POINT was someone making a bogus report about a dodgy tax return. I’m hardly going to complain about crass generalisations made about me and then do it do you, am I?

    I am (still) not an underclass, I’m a free (wo)man!

    Australia seems to be well ahead of Britain in terms of the affordability of the welfare state. The private provision of pensions through superannuation was tackled decades ago, with the result that you won’t have the pensions crisis the UK is facing in the next couple of decades when workers paying in National Insurance will each be supporting three pensioners. The medical system is financially more sustainable as patients are expected to contribute towards the cost of their care and the private insurance market actually works – whereas the NHS is still entirely free to patients, takes a big chunk out of GDP to sustain and private health care only covers private hospitals, not serious NHS care (other than dental). Australia also seems to have started their welfare reform measures earlier, eg. sending single mothers back to work a lot earlier, tightening unemployment eligibility and disability pension levels. UK Labour’s mismanagement and dishonesty (off balance sheet accounting means most of Blair’s much vaunted Public Private Partnerships – used to fund billions of infrastructure work – appear nowhere. Not in the public accounts or those of the private companies involved) meant the country was in debt BEFORE the financial sector bailout. Now the UK is so far in hock even the gilts have been downgraded. Not only can we not afford the benefits and pension system in its current form, we can’t actually afford the NHS or education system either.

  6. Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink


    I know this is going to make me look like a troll, and it’s probably only just us two here now, and I’m promising myself to leave the Uxxxxxclxxx issue alone, but you know I can’t let this “can’t afford” stuff go through to the keeper [yuck! sporting metaphor].

    “Can’t afford” is such a rolled-up judgment – that is to say it masks a whole lot of variables. Can’t afford because there is not enough money (in whose pockets?)? Can’t afford because wanting to spend the money on something else? – lots of people think they can’t afford the opera but will readily spend more on a night out at the football. Then, since money has a time aspect, the same questions have to be asked as a question of credit rather than money. And don’t think that economists answers about these things, even though they are based on a view of systems rather than individuals, don’t still have assumptions about all of these things built into them.

    Finally, I know in England everyone (especially from the right) likes to whinge about “UK labour’s mismanagement and dishonesty” but I’m not sure if “off balance sheet accounting” quite makes out that charge.

  7. Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Should be “economists’ answers” of course.

  8. Posted October 12, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Disability benefits have a huge link to workplace safety..maybe we should be looking at what is causing so many people to need to resort to a disability benefit? We should be looking at why, not judging!

  9. Posted May 24, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    struggle to see how you ‘debunked’ an article on Political Pundits

  10. Posted May 24, 2011 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Not the article, the concept of the Underclass which as the Political Pundits article points out is being recycled yet again by people who ought to know better!

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] recipients by both Labour and the Conservatives (previously detailed in my earlier post on Welfare, I am not an Underclass) it surprises me that the Liberal Democrats aren’t emphasizing this aspect […]

  2. By Check this out | Workinjurycompensation's Blog on October 12, 2010 at 9:45 am

    […] http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2009/11/24/i-am-not-an-underclass/ […]

  3. […] campaign to abolish Incapacity Benefit. For those not familiar with the British welfare system or my earlier posts, IB provides a basic income to those unable to work due to medium or long-term sickness or […]

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