Where does the public stand on the UK benefits system?

A majority favours more spending for disabled people, carers, working people on low incomes and pensioners, but views have hardened towards people on out-of-work benefits, like single mums. This is ironic when you consider that there are around a million fewer people claiming out-of-work benefits now than there were before the 1997 election, thanks in no small part to major increases in employment for lone parents and people with disabilities. People also vastly over-estimate fraud levels in the system and increasingly think people are better off on benefits, which is simply not the case.
How valid is the hardening of public views towards claimants?
The ‘public v claimants’ trope is baffling insomuch as it ignores that around 30m people in the UK – about half the population – receive income from at least one benefit. That said, out-of-work claimants have clearly taken a bruising of late. We’ve all heard the speeches about families with 10-plus kids claiming benefits, or seen the headlines about the homes where multiple generations have never worked.
These aren’t false examples, but their significance has certainly been vastly exaggerated for political convenience. There are fewer than 200 families with 10-plus kids claiming benefits, accounting for 0.005 per cent of the entire welfare budget.  Similarly, only 0.3 per cent of UK households have two generations that have never worked. By continuously highlighting anomalies, the public starts to see them as evidence of a wider problem, resulting in increased physical attacks on the disabled and largely unchallenged cuts to the incomes of people who are already skipping meals.
What effect do these views have on potential benefits claimants?
Evidence suggests that stigma is playing a role in explaining non-take-up of benefits.  At a human level, this means elderly, sick and disabled people going without food or heating, lest they be tarred with the ‘scrounger’ brush, a prominent cry in the discourse surrounding social security. Policy-makers of all colours, as well as journalists, need to take their share of the responsibility for this.     
How can we defeat the stigma attached to being supported by the state?
The 2012 report we commissioned, Benefits Stigma in Britain, makes a number of recommendations for the delivery of benefits, the design of the benefit system, the reporting of stories about benefit claimants and how politicians could improve communications in this area.
What does Turn2us do to address this? What have you achieved so far, and what is there left to do?
There is copious evidence that policy speeches and news stories concerning benefits grossly misrepresent the reality. We believe the public deserves to be told the truth and benefit claimants, some of whom are our most vulnerable citizens, deserve to have someone fighting their corner. In light of this, Benefits Stigma in Britain smashes many of the myths and inaccuracies that have been repeated so often and so earnestly that decent people have come to accept them as facts. They are not. We will take the report’s recommendations to policy-makers and highlight the research findings through the media, although we’re not counting on much bite from the mid-market tabloids.
As a society, what can we do?
We shouldn’t criticise individuals for holding inaccurate views about claimants.  People, although healthily cynical, are entitled to believe that what they read in the papers or hear from their politicians is at least broadly correct. We should not necessarily be seeking to change the behaviour of the general public, but that of those responsible for peddling these base misrepresentations in the first place.
Why are you personally interested in this issue?
I was raised by a single mum who worked long hours to provide a secure home life. In my last year of school, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, having already fought off cancer twice. It was the first time she had been forced to stop work, and within weeks we lost our home. Her treatment by benefit assessors over the years has been a source of great humiliation and shame, the burden of which she carries always. Now severely disabled, she is strong of mind, but I wonder about those who are less assured when they have to throw themselves on the mercy of the benefit system. What becomes of them? It’s a question I often come back to and which, on some level, may have drawn me to Turn2us.   
Are the government’s welfare reforms a threat to the most vulnerable people in our society?
Yes. The evidence base for this is so compelling that I don’t think I need to elaborate any further.
What reforms would you change if you were in government? 
We’ve been broadly positive about reforms such as Universal Credit, which will simplify the system. However, politics is about choosing and we would not choose to cut the benefits of vulnerable people, or justify doing so on the basis of extraordinary and atypical examples of abuse within the system. Britain did not stop building ships because the Titanic sank, and nor should it have done. Evidence-based policy-making has come a long way, but it’s conspicuous by its absence in respect to these latest cuts and those that preceded them.
Rob Tolan is head of policy and research at Elizabeth Finn Care, the charity that runs Turn2us

Tags: Issue 53, Rob Tolan, Special report, Turn2us