Only through learning to trust will we genuinely reform welfare

(first posted October 2012)

Behind some subtle differences in rhetoric and degree, there is little to distinguish the attitudes and approach of the major parties towards disability and welfare.  Here’s Ed Miliband in his Party Conference speech:

‘You see I think it is incredibly important that to be One Nation we must show compassion and support for all those who cannot work. Particularly the disabled men and women of our country. But in order to do so, those who can work have a responsibility to do so. We can’t leave people languishing out of work, for one year, two years, three years. We’ve got a responsibility to help them and they’ve got a responsibility to take the work that is on offer.’

Contrast this with the comments of Employment Minister Mark Hoban this week:

“Of course, we are committed to supporting people who cannot work through ill health or disability. But for people who can work but who refuse to play by the rules, tomorrow will be a rude awakening.”

Both parties seek to reduce the numbers on ‘inactive’ benefits through redefining who is and who is not ‘authentically disabled’, making disability synonymous with inability.  Both parties compete over who can sound toughest on those deemed capable of – yet not yet in – work.   The very state of being unemployed and yet deemed capable of working is now synonymous with being a ‘shirker’ – unemployment as an individual pathology, not economic failure.

It is policy motivated by and motivating distrust, common throughout economic hard-times.  At its worst such distrust nurtures climates in which hostility and hatred thrive.  It is, sadly, the politics of fear.  In order to ‘protect’ disabled people from this deliberately generated climate it relies on characterising ‘genuine disabled people’ as lacking agency and positions them as objects of compassion, not rights-holding citizens.

I was heavily criticised for suggesting in a blog that I wrote for Disability Rights UK that public policy needed to abandon ‘the wasteful and damaging obsession with ‘skivers’ that consumes both the resources and discourse surrounding our welfare state, replacing it with a new narrative and focus on supporting ‘strivers’’. Sadly, so pernicious is the idea of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor that many people read this as drawing a distinction between two identifiable groups ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’. In fact – though it could have been better articulated and have avoided using words already appropriated by the Prime Minister – it was a direct call to abandon such distinctions and to move from policy based upon distrust and surveillance to one based upon trust, incentives and encouragement.  It was a call to infuse policy with the politics of hope.

I do believe it is good for society to optimise the number of people getting in, getting on and staying in paid employment.  I think this is worth striving for.  Public policy should proactively work to make this happen through creating the opportunity infrastructure – effective economic stewardship, investment in training & education, high quality public services, opening up workplaces to previously excluded groups and tailored support and encouragement for those who require it.

It is right that we create a climate of expectation, not only as a spur to individuals but more importantly as a challenge to any government which believes it acceptable for almost one million young people to be out of work, or which is complacent about only 20 per cent of people with mental health problems being in paid employment.  This is though fundamentally different from the present climate of suspicion.

‘Striving’ isn’t confined to finding expression through paid employment.  Striving is the ordinary human condition.  We strive to survive each day.  We strive to love and be loved, to have good relationships, to be recognised for our talents and abilities, to do things we enjoy and to feel good.   We each – whatever our situation – seek out opportunities to achieve states of being which match out aspirations such as just managing to go for a walk without having to look over our shoulders for the benefit fraud inspector.  ‘Striving’ in this sense is synonymous with human dignity.

This is why a modern welfare state should not demand that its beneficiaries enter a state of suspended animation.  My argument was that an effective welfare state should be above all else be focused on nurturing our human potential, seeing us all as natural strivers, not as instinctive ‘skivers’. To believe in us, not suspect us. To want us to be well and to do well and to treat each of us with dignity and respect

This is an agenda of promoting substantive freedom, which rejects the dead hand of the benevolent state.  If this idea guided policy I genuinely believe it, and the rhetoric surrounding it, would look radically different.

The policy of conditionality, originally justified as a paternalistic, now embodies and encourages only distrust because it has become confused with tackling ‘abuse’.  It is also this policy and the increasingly draconian sanctions which accompany it which created the need to distinguish between those who should and should not be subjected to it.

Where disability is concerned, the approach developed to do this – the work capability assessment – also embodies this distrust.   Based on criteria which have little if any bearing on an individual’s real capabilities and opportunities to work it demands that they be subject to an assessment by a French IT company, the outcome of which is a Hobson’s choice of a life standing still or of having their benefits cut and being at the mercy of bureaucrats and welfare to work providers.   The reality of the WCA makes the otherwise benign sounding phrase ‘we want to focus on what disabled people can do, not what they cannot’ suddenly seem laced with menace.  The politics of distrust extends to the assessors and providers also, working as they do within a wholly unsuitable and unsustainable business model of payment by results imported from the banking industry by (Lord) David Freud.

Conditionality, sanctions, ‘computer says no’, targets, payment by results.  That’s where mistrust gets you and there is little evidence that it is successful in getting people into jobs.

So the first thing we need to if we want to move on is to abandon our reliance on conditionality.  Public policy should though seek to raise expectations.  Research by Tania Burchardt at the LSE found that by the age of 26, the expectations of young disabled people – who face the fewest opportunities to find paid employment – have departed considerably from non-disabled people of the same age, with significant numbers saying that nothing they can do in their lives makes a difference.  This is as a result of lack of opportunity, not lack of will and I am not aware of evidence that says tougher sanctions will raise people’s sense of what’s possible, only their feelings of hopelessness.  The DWP should develop a programme aimed at raising the expectations of young disabled people, increasing opportunities for work experience, apprenticeships and training in partnership with employers and supporting the development of peer-to-peer initiatives to provide role models and trusted sources of support.   Such a body of work would act as a genuine Paralympics legacy.

The quid pro quo might in future be an acceptance that being disabled or having a chronic health condition should not itself attract a higher rate of unemployment benefit, itself emblematic of lowered expectations.  A flat rate of unemployment benefit for everybody and the abandonment of the intricate processes involved in conditionality would spare us the red-tape and bureaucracy associated with conditionality and the WCA, resources from which can be re-invested in developing the opportunity infrastructure and support for well-being in which people can strive.

This clearly includes an adequate standard of living and one which recognises the additional financial costs of disability.  Disability Living Allowance should be reformed and expanded, not cut, including offering more generous levels of benefit for those facing the greatest barriers such as some people with chronic health conditions as an alternative to providing such income support via the ‘support’ element of ESA.  Eligibility should be based on assessment of the ‘capability deprivations’ (i.e. the actual barriers facing the individual, linking eligibility directly to the purpose of the benefit, not on abstract assessments of functional capacity).  This would have the effect of shifting social security expenditure from compensatory payments to payments which support people to live fulfilling lives and to contribute socially and economically in whatever way they can.

Spending on Access to Work could also be significantly expanded, including through personal budgets which allow the scheme to travel with the individual and which enable it to be used to access training as well as equipment and support and in the context of voluntary work.   Access to Work quite understandably enjoys the support of business with the British Chambers of Commerce describing it as ‘the best kept secret in Government.  Furthermore it more than pays for itself recouping £1.48 in increased tax and NI contributions for every £1 spent.

It seems utterly counter-intuitive to be looking to reduce rights to flexible working at a time both when employers themselves clearly view such flexibility as a preferable option to redundancy and when many of those out of work are searching for flexible options.  Equally, inflexible rules in the benefit system itself, which again embody the spirit of distrust, could be amended to allow more people to work when they can.

Trust should extend to the way employment support providers are hired.   Rather than DWP defining terms and commissioning from on high, government should emulate venture capitalists, seeking out and investing in promising projects which look likely to offer high social returns, but recognising that sometimes trial and error is central to the search for success.

Outside the field of employment policy, we have to ensure other public policy and services help create the opportunity infrastructure.  A sound and fair footing for the funding of social care is instrumental to ensuring disabled people and their families can maintain health and well-being and participate socially and economically.   The government should halt the closure of the Independent Living Fund.  It has been instrumental in creating life opportunities for people facing some of the most significant barriers, as Jane Young recently pointed out in an excellent article.  It will not be replicated by local authorities and to close it down is a reckless, regressive and counter-productive act.  Closure is utterly at odds with the government’s professed commitment to social mobility, placing the life chances of future generations of disabled people behind that of their forebears.

By moving away from welfare policy based on distrust to an approach focused on investing in people and creating an opportunity infrastructure Britain as a whole stands to gain socially and economically.   A 2007 report commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission found that improving the employment rate of disabled people to the national average would boost the UK economy by £13 billion, equivalent to six months economic growth.  By investing our trust, we can help re-build our economy and hold true to the Paralympic promise of a more inclusive society.

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