The fall in support for the welfare state among younger voters, which Mark Wallace has chronicled on this site, is only part of the story of its decline in popularity. Three main causes are driving it. First, and most obviously, the effects of the crash: if you’re working hard over long hours for little reward, you will be even less patient than before with those who aren’t working at all. Second, the consequences of mass immigration. Welfare systems that redistribute taxpayers’ money are dependent on the good will of people who pay out. These will be unwilling to fund those that they suspect, rightly or wrongly, of not having paid into the system substantially, if at all: in short, taxpayer-financed welfare systems are dependent on belief that, to coin a phrase,”we’re all in it together”. Finally, there are the effects of another social change – the long rise in number of those claiming incapacity welfare payments who have mental or behavioural disorders, and who now reportedly account for two-fifths of all those claiming disability benefits.
If the long-term trend has been towards better treatment of disabled people, a short-term one is towards resentment and suspicion at best, abuse and violence at worst. Ian Birrell, David Cameron’s former speechwriter, has described some of “the most extreme cases. The blind lady punched to the ground, the man with learning disabilities set on fire, the teenager killed on his birthday”. Disability campaigners claim that as many as 100,000 “hate crimes” take place each year; the Home Office puts the number at 100,000. Today, Labour will reportedly announce its intention of introducing a specific criminal charge of disability hate crime if it wins the 2015 election. The Association of Chief Police Officers has been recording such crimes for four years. None the less, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Probation Service agree that there is no “clear and uncomplicated definition” of what makes up disability hate crime. The three organisations agree that there should be a “single, clear and uncomplicated definition of a disability hate crime”, and have asked the Law Commission to consider the matter.
Labour, with an eye to the conference season, is thus jumping the gun ahead of a full report. The principle that the courts should take into account the motives of those who commit serious offences is well-established. Most Conservatives accept that these should include race, religion, sexual orientation – and disability (though many will be unhappy with the current stress in hate crime law of perception rather than fact). There is a case for keeping the law as it stands. The prosecution of hate crimes is at a record high, and the number of disability crime in that category rose by 25 per cent in 2010 and 18 per cent the following year (admittedly from a very low base). The police seem gradually to be coming to terms with prosecuting crimes motivated by the hatred of disabled people. Why not let events take their course? But Ministers should keep a careful eye on what the Law Commission has to say. And if it recommends a consolidation and clarification of the law, there is no good reason for the Government to wait for Labour to implement it.
A short-term trend may be bad for disabled people, but the long-term ones are better. Attitudes towards them have been transformed over the past 20 years or so, and it was a Conservative Government which implemented the first disability discrimination bill. Iain Duncan Smith’s mission to get more disabled people into work is a noble one: indeed, the research I saw when I was Shadow Minister for Disabled People showed that most disabled people, far from wishing to live on benefits, wanted to work – only to find that the system was stacked against them. (Labour was content to leave the incapacity benefits “stock” stay trapped in worklessness and poverty: where was the compassion there?) The Work and Pensions Secretary’s determined but humane approach should set the emotional tone for the rest of the Party. Introducing a welfare cap isn’t inconsistent with protecting disabled people from bullying, thuggery and assault – any more than seeking health service savings is incompatible with protecting elderly people from the horrors that ravaged Mid-Staffs hospital. If the Law Commission recommends reform, the Government should act without delay.