An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Beyond the Barriers – New Spartacus Report


The Spartacus group, which produced Responsible Reform, has just published its latest report on the Employment and Support Allowance.

Beyond the Barriers has taken evidence from around Europe, the results of the government’s own enquiries and some primary research of its own to produce a highly critical report. It suggests alternatives to the controversial Work Capability Assessments, and places the whole system in the context of the current labour market.

You can read the full report here.

I’d obviously encourage the politically engaged amongst you to read the report and spread the word as widely as possible. ESA and the WCA process are highly flawed. Trying to take a subjective concept such as “disability” and apply it to a rigid set of arbitrary medical measures was always going to be an issue. And it has been for a long time.

But since I’m not disabled and cannot even begin to fathom what the experience of going through a WCA is like (50% of respondents said that stress and fear were the worst parts of the process), I thought I’d retreat into my ivory tower and offer some historical perspective.

Spartacus & DIG

A lot of the tactics employed by Spartacus are reminiscent of the Disablement Income Group in the mid-1960s and early-1970s. The use of international comparisons, for example, is very DIG-esque. Back in 1971, DIG’s research into Western European benefits systems was so advanced, even the Department of Health and Social Security didn’t keep that sort of data.1 Of course, the rise of multiple international bodies (including the EU) since then has made governments much more aware of international comparisons. But the idea of ‘inspiring or shaming’ through showing how much greener the grass is on the continent is by no means a new tactic. For DIG, it was a rather successful one; the media coverage inspired the DHSS to set about conducting its own research, and by 1977 a whole host of new benefits for disabled people had been created.

DIG was also keen to use evidence from surveys of disabled people themselves. During the 1960s, there was no official category of “the disabled” or “disabled people”. Arguably, there still isn’t, but at least the government has developed ways of beginning to estimate the numbers of disabled people in the country. Until 1971, the United Kingdom had no published data on this at all. DIG was one of the few organisations that knew disabled people, where they lived, and the general problems they faced. As a result, it was actively consulted in helping to design a survey for the Office of Population and Census Studies.2 Not only did DIG know what questions to ask, it knew how to find whom to ask. Beyond the Barriers employs a similar methodology, building on the analytical work conducted in earlier research projects.

What Spartacus has done with the wider social questions, however, is much more advanced than anything DIG attempted. Developments in disability studies, rights legislation and the faltering economy have all helped; but the critique of the labour market as inherently discriminatory against disabled people is pretty radical. Certainly DIG would have trouble making these arguments in a pre-Thatcher, “full-employment” interventionist welfare state. Indeed, Spartacus has been able to take current workplace initiatives such as work placements and explain how and why they currently fail to produce any meaningful results. DIG did make compelling arguments about how disabled people earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and are more likely to incur extra costs (the basis of today’s disability benefit coverage). But this report takes things much further by making concrete suggestions about how these sorts of barriers might be overcome.

One key continuity remains. DIG was always focused on democratic, gradual reform. It did not demand revolution, or for solutions to be created overnight. Instead, it always pushed for incremental improvements in the level of services, pushing towards an “ideal type” National Disability Income. Spartacus is certainly strident in its demands; but there are a set of ‘Interim Recommendations’ which are practicable in the limbo between the current situation and a more appealing future. This kind of reform has its drawbacks; but it certainly cannot be thought of as unreasonable and unthinking. DIG was able to secure a number of reforms over the course of around 15 years through this sort of campaigning. At the same time, more radical groups always felt that such compromises were more damaging in the long term. This is a debate that will probably never be resolved.


So, again, do spread the word about the report. It’s certainly for a good cause. Given this government has already ignored court rulings that their policies contravene the Equalities Act, these sorts of well-presented, well-researched and professional-quality reports are exactly what opposition politicians and journalists need to tackle injustice.

If you would like to contact the report’s authors, they can be found through @SpartacusReport.
  1. Hampton, Jameel, ‘Disabled People and the Classic Welfare State, 1948-1975: Changes in Perception, Developments in Policy’, PhD thesis, University of Bristol, 2011, esp 134-6.
  2. Harris, Amelia I., Handicapped and impaired in Great Britain (London: H.M.S.O., 1971).
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