The latest version of the bible of public opinion, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, came out recently – perhaps to less fanfare than usual given the deluge of other news. Still, buried away in the chapter on attitudes to benefits is an intriguing finding about changing attitudes to disability benefits over time that I thought deserved more attention.

The question itself asks people if they want more or less spending on six different types of benefits, including ‘benefits for disabled people who cannot work’. (The full wording is at the bottom of this post). As previous BSA chapters have shown (including mine), people generally want more spending on ‘deserving’ groups of claimants like ‘disabled people who cannot work’. (I’ll come back in future posts to how far they think this applies to all incapacity benefit claimants).

What’s surprising, though, is how this has changed in the last couple of years. The trend is shown in the table below (taken directly from Liz Clery’s chapter in this year’s report):

BSA 2015 Table 1

We’d already seen that there was a fall in support for more spending from 2008 to 2011 – perhaps unsurprisingly given all the talk of austerity, debt and deficits. However, this isn’t anything specific to benefits for disabled people – support for more spending on all benefits fell similarly (if anything, the fall was highest for benefits for retired people, which I wrote about elsewhere).

What’s new, though, is the rise in support for more spending on benefits for disabled people between 2013 and 2015 (from 54% to 61%). What’s more, this rise seems to be greater for disabled people’s benefits than for other benefits (much as there seems to be increasing support for more spending for other benefits too; the number of people thinking benefits for unemployed people should be cut fell from 49% to 45% for example, as shown in the full BSA chapter).

It’s always hard to read public opinion, and it’s particularly hard to read it on the basis of a single question in a single survey. Still, I think this shows more of the public are probably becoming aware of cuts to disability benefits, and their attitudes are changing as a result. This may have increased further (since the BSA fieldwork in Aug-Oct last year), given IDS’ resignation over disability benefit cuts earlier in 2016. And while smart social scientists don’t make predictions – the future is unpredictable, however fancy our statistics are – but if I was going to rashly make a prediction, it would be that this trend will continue into 2017 as the impact of the impending cut to the ESA WRAG group starts to bite.

To be clear – there has been no wholesale shift in public attitudes to disability benefits since 2013. But there are signs that attitudes are starting to change, and it will be interesting to see if this continues in the coming months and years.


Full question wording:

“Some people think that there should be more government spending on social security, while other people disagree. For each of the groups I read out please say whether you would like to see more or less government spending on them than now. Bear in mind that if you want more spending, this would probably mean that you would have to pay more taxes. If you want less spending, this would probably mean paying less taxes.

Firstly, benefits for unemployed people: would you like to see more or less government spending than now?

(Would you like to see more or less government spending than now on …) … benefits for disabled people who cannot work?

Etc.