Anne Begg, chair of the work and pensions committee, has taken the almost unprecedented step of publishing openly a letter to the employment secretary Chris Grayling. It expresses her concern at the way employment and support allowance (ESA) statistics he is releasing have continued to fuel anti-claimant press stories. In her letter Begg notes the ‘​coincide​nce’​ that the latest ESA statistics were released on the same day as her own committee’​s report, which heavily criticises the way that ESA medicals are being carried out.

In its report released this week, the work and pensions committee savaged the way the work capability assessment is carried out by Atos Healthcare and condemned the repeated media portrayal of claimants as ‘​workshy’​ and ‘​scrounge​rs’​. The report also criticised the government for failure to “​take greater care in the language it uses when it engages with the media and in particular when it releases and comments on official statistics on the IB reassessm​ent.”​

Yet on the very day the work and pensions committee report was released, Grayling’​s department once again fed ESA statistics to the media, which duly obliged with more hate-fuelled misrepresentations of sick and disabled claimants.

The Express carried the headline’​ Sick benefits: 75% are faking’​, whilst the Daily Mail’​s headline was ‘​The shirking classes: just 1 in 14 incapacity benefit claimants is unfit to work’​. Both were a deliberate mangling of the truth and whilst both papers carried details of Begg’​s report, its impact was destroyed by the headlines above it.

In her letter to Grayling, published on the parliament website, Begg notes that in the committee’​s report “​we highlighted the concern amongst incapacity benefit claimants about the negative public perception of them. We deprecated the coverage of the reassessment in some sections of the media and in particular the use of terms such as "​scrounge​r"​ and "​work shy"​. We drew particular attention to the way in which releases of official statistics about the reassessment process were covered in the media”​

Begg goes on to note that, although in his evidence to the committee Grayling had denied any part in feeding negative stories to the media:

“​By what I assume was a coincidence, the Department chose to release statistics on new Employment and Support Allowance claims yesterday. The coverage of the statistics in some newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, was a particularly egregious example of the way they can be misused.”​

Begg says that she trusts that Grayling will be “​contacting newspaper editors again to urge them to ensure that the reports they carry about ESA claims are factually correct and that they avoid pejorative terms such as "​shirkers"​ and "​scrounge​rs"​ which are irresponsible and inaccurate.”​.

Of course, as Begg knows only too well, the hate-provoking headlines make continued cuts to benefits much easier to introduce. And the government will undoubtedly continue to collude in creating them for as long as it can get away with it.

The reality is that, until sick and disabled people have the same protection under the law as other minorities, there is likely to be very little that can be done to prevent the publication of disablist propaganda that, if aimed at other minorities, would attract a substantial period of imprisonment.

You can read the full text of Begg’​s letter here.

Thanks to mistynow for highlighting this issue


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