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Benefits stigman in BritainBenefits stigma in Britain - new Turn2us research

Earlier this year, Turn2us commissioned a team of policy experts co-ordinated by the University of Kent team to carry out a major research study assessing the impact of stigma and other social influences on applying for benefits. The research team was composed of Ben Baumberg (senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent), Kate Bell (former policy director at Gingerbread) & Declan Gaffney (independent policy consultant).

Key findings

  • The public vastly overestimated the numbers of people ‘claiming falsely’ or ‘committing fraud’
  • 1 in 5 people believe a majority of claims are false, while 14% believe a majority of claims are fraudulent. The Government’s own statistics indicate an actual fraud rate of around 1%
  • The public now see claimants as less deserving than they did 20 years ago, with noticeable shifts in opinion in the late 1990s and early 2000s
  • Evidence was found to support the idea that negative media coverage is linked to stigma – with people who read more stigmatising newspapers perceiving higher levels of fraud and greater personal stigma
  • Both a national survey and use of focus groups demonstrated that stigma is impacting on both take up of tax credits and benefits. Many are making a choice whether to ‘heat or eat’ because of a deep-seated sense of shame at the prospect of claiming
  • Non-take up of benefits has risen concurrently with stigma.

Recommendations on reducing stigma

To reduce stigma, the study makes a number of suggestions, summarised below:

Delivery of benefits

  • Jobcentre Plus and other staff (including eligibility assessors such as Atos) should be given periodic training to challenge their own perceptions about claimants - in the same way that social workers are trained to be non-judgmental
  • Claimants who sign a 'claimant commitment' setting out their work-search responsibilities under the new Universal Credit system should receive a countersignature from their personal adviser, guaranteeing the levels of support that will be provided (which we understand the Government is already set to address)
  • Claimants should be given choice over which organisation or provider supplies their back-to-work support, as is the case in the Netherlands.

Design of the benefit system

  • More universal, contributions-based and generous benefits/benefit systems seem to be less stigmatised.

Role of the media

  • Newspapers should try to avoid suggesting that claimants who are not meeting the conditions of benefit entitlements are typical of the wider population claiming benefits
  • Journalists should operate within the code of ethics set out by the National Union of Journalists Disabled Members Council.

Examining the role of policymakers and public messages around benefits

  • The UK Statistics Authority should consider two sets of changes to the Code of Practice for Statistics:
    1. For official statistics to be a credible contribution to public debate, full details need to be available to the public at the same time as journalists and alternative voices should be heard. Secondly, public providers of official and ad hoc statistics should accept responsibility for predictable and repeated media misinterpretations, and act to correct these
    2. Those trying to reduce benefits stigma do not attempt to do this by demonising ‘undeserving’ claimants, a strategy that has been tried and failed in the past. A conversation that moves away from the individual characteristics of benefit claimants and on to one that looks at the broader issues behind benefit receipt -including economic factors and the significant employment penalties experienced by people with disabilities - is likely to be more productive, if the aim is to reduce the stigma of claiming benefits. When politicians do talk about claimants, they should emphasise typical rather than atypical cases. Most benefit claimants have paid contributions in the past and will take part in paid work in the future, or contribute in other ways such as caring.

Read between the lines: confronting the myths about the benefits system

We have also launched a smaller report, Read between the lines: confronting the myths about the benefits system, which will help campaigners tackle the inaccuracies that have for too long dominated the discussion around benefits.

Access Read between the lines: confronting the myths about the benefits system (PDF file size 1,001kb)

Raising awareness

As a next step, Turn2us intends to widely publicise the findings and recommendations of this study to policy makers.

The first stage of this process was a round table discussion held by the policy and research team in Westminster on Tuesday 23 October. Attendees included Kate Green MP, Luciana Berger MP, Meg Munn MP, Baroness Lister of Burtersett, the Chief Executives of Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as well as journalists and representatives from think tanks and third sector organisations.

Read the Benefits Stigma study research report (PDF file size 1,636)

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