Heavy words so lightly thrown? The Disability and Health Employment Strategy

The government published the Disability and Health Employment Strategy – or rather the discussion of a disability and health employment strategy thus far – on Tuesday.

Before getting to the details, a message to Mike Penning:  you should note that the reason the Joint Committee on Human Rights said the UK was a world leader on disability rights was to highlight the risk of your government squandering such a well-earned status with bad policies.

Now onto the substance….

…First it is creditable I think that the report looks at the role and obligations of employers, government and disabled people.  For far too long (under this government and the last) the emphasis has been almost entirely on ‘employability’ – the attitudes, behaviours and ‘human capital’ of the individual – with (poorly enforced) anti-discrimination law and (the largely unheard of by many small employers) Access to Work scheme being the limited interventions in seeking a more open and receptive labour market.  The fact that the strategy recognises that the task of improving disabled people’s employment prospects must be one of reciprocal obligations and actions is important, welcome and something to build on.

However, I find its proposals in relation to employers rather uninspiring.  First on Access to Work it is certainly helpful to make it available for various forms of work experience, to increase awareness of the scheme and make applying for it easier for employers and individuals.  However, the scheme currently enjoys only 0.6% of DWP’s budget, despite evidence showing both its transformative effect and that it pays for itself with a £1.48 return to the Treasury for every £1 spent.   This is an obvious candidate to be the beneficiary of increased invest to save spending.   One way to find money do so would be de-bureaucratise the system itself, allowing more large employers to administer the scheme directly, while channelling support to SME’s and their disabled staff/prospective staff via a system of personalised budgets, with advice and support.  That is to say, keep the middle-man at bay.  A ‘strengthened pre-employment eligibility letter’ is a step in the right direction but as the Sayce review also recommended, support should be centred on and travel with the individual, rather than on individual employers, thus avoiding individuals having to re-apply each time they move jobs.  This could be part of the overall shift to truly personalised employment support that Liz and I began setting out in Taking Control of Employment Support.

An information portal for employers is welcome, though it makes me sad that the well-established Disability Rights Commission helpline and suite of evidence based advice and guidance it developed with and for businesses was allowed to be run into the ground – I hope the creators of this new portal will be minded to go back just a few years and be inspired by (or even recycle rather than recreate some of) this work.

Regarding the flagship ‘Disability Confident’ scheme (a title which has echoes of an advert for a sanitary product), I’m sure it will deliver some results, but I’m afraid that in its presentation it feels to embody the shallowness of CSR posturing and in practice it is relying on approaches to nurture the engagement and willingness of employers that have been around for the last 10-15 years or more.  Compare it to ‘Trading for Good’ for example, developed by Kay Allen OBE in liaison with the behavioural insight team (Nudge team) in the Cabinet Office and it feels positively parochial.  Given the investment that has been made by DWP in theorising incentives and sanctions for individual disabled people, a similar investment in discovering how to genuinely change employer behaviours and instituting the means of doing so is long overdue and I hope will emerge in the next stage of development.

With respect to support for individuals, the gateway proposal is initially very welcome recognising as it does that functional limitation does not alone predict employment opportunity and suggesting that tailored assessment and support is the answer.  But it instantly falls apart by drawing a distinction between ‘a basic universal offer of support’ and ‘specialist support’.    The former clearly implies DWP’s intention to maintain investment in the uniform, pointless and wasteful Work Programme – which has achieved a success rate with ESA claimants which by the government’s own measures amounts to worse than doing nothing at all.   At a time of eye-watering spending cuts this is nothing short of scandalous and appears to have little interest in evidence of what works in helping people into jobs.  If it doesn’t work then stop spending money on it (which could of course be the point – the payment by results approach means that the more it succeeds, the more it costs).

I come back to the argument made by Liz Sayce and I in ‘Taking Control of Employment Support’ – scrap the Work Programme and focus the money directly on employers and disabled people, with specialist advice and support as necessary, working with partners at the local level.  Everyone should receive ‘specialist’ (for them) support.

Secondly, the report explores the question of rationing specialist support.  I think it is right to focus all forms of employment support on those who exhibit a keenness to embark on entering or re-entering the labour market – evidence shows that motivation and self-efficacy are critical to success (which is why the constant pursuit of more conditionality, sanctions and other forms of hounding is so pointless and unhelpful).  But focusing support on those deemed by government or its agents to be closest to the labour market is a central problem in the existing system and will simply perpetuate and deepen existing inequalities and deny support to those who need it most.  Moreover, by what analysis would such distance be gauged when it may very well be a product of the inadequacies of existing approaches or the extent of prejudice and discrimination by employers? This seems particular relevant when it comes to people with mental health problems for example?  This idea is grounded in the spurious notion of ‘hard to reach’ groups, which allows those responsible for reaching them to be let off the hook.   We need to reject this and recognise that these are people ‘not yet reached’ otherwise we will collude with discrimination and labour market disadvantage.

Having read the report now it feels as though – to bastardise the words of the great Steven Patrick Morrissey – heavy words are (being) so lightly thrown.  The promise of personalisation is rendered almost immediately empty by saying most will be channelled to the useless uniformity of the work programme, while a rationed ‘specialist offer’ may provide some degree of self-directed support but only to those ‘nearest to the labour market.’  The welcome focus on employers is unfortunately swept under the banner of ‘Disability Confident’ which offers nothing that hasn’t existed before and doesn’t attempt anything at the cutting edge of changing employer behaviours.  There is nothing of any significance regarding what all evidence confirms could be the most significant game changer for many disabled people – improved skills and qualifications.  The section on transitions merits little mention at all so lacking as it is in serious propositions and at a time where youth unemployment is so tragically high.

DWP appear to be unable to escape the self-interested grip of the prime contractors and other providers of ineffective support.  They have deluded themselves that this model is capable of offering personalised support when all the evidence shows the exact opposite.   They are beholden to the ‘no win, no fee’ commissioning model, which creates perverse incentives for a government department under immense pressure to find savings to allow things to fail.

Fortunately this is ‘the discussion so far’ which suggests opportunities for refinement.

I would like to close by making one big recommendation if not for this government for a future Labour government:  take employment support away from the Department for Work and Pensions and align it with the skills agenda, led nationally by BIS and delivered locally through partnerships between local government, employers, colleges and community groups (including DPULO’s).

Until we do, DWP will continue to design behavioural management regimes to fulfil the political ends of ‘being tough’ on benefit claimants under the guise of the Work Programme. It will know at the same time that the Work Programme’s failure to secure people jobs is DWP’s way to save money.  And the failure of the Work Programme is already being blamed by DWP Ministers on the individuals who have been failed by it, which in turn is used to make the case to deepen sanctions and cut benefits.

It’s time to stop this race to the bottom and get serious about the business of securing disabled people jobs.

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One thought on “Heavy words so lightly thrown? The Disability and Health Employment Strategy

  1. Pingback: Refreshing the disability rights agenda – a future imagined | Making rights make sense

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