Why Employment & Support Allowance (and DWP) fails the fitness test

So we’ve reached that annual day on DWP’s media calendar when it pumps out misleading statistics regarding the numbers found ‘fit for work’ following the Work Capability Assessment (1 million since 2008 allegedly).

I’ll leave the critique of the statistics to others, for whatever their accuracy within the internal logic of the absurd system created by the DWP, they are meaningless as an indicator of actual employment prospects.

In the BBC article, Minister for Disabled People Mike Penning MP is quoted as saying ‘it is only fair that we look at whether people can do some kind of work with the right support – rather than just writing them off on long-term sickness benefits, as has happened in the past.’

I couldn’t agree more.  Yet that is not what the Work Capability Assessment does at all.  It is an abstract measure of functional capacity, not a ‘real world’ exploration with an individual regarding whether the ‘kind of work’ they might be in a genuine position to do is a realistic prospect and whether the ‘right support’ they would require can be sourced and sustained.  The fact that the government’s flagship ‘Work Programme’ – the ‘carrot’ justifying the ‘stick’ of increased conditionality and sanctions – has a 95% failure rate for those on ESA suggests that the ‘right support’ is as ubiquitous as the Loch Ness Monster.

As Liz Sayce, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK recently noted:

‘Whether you can or cannot ‘raise either arm to the top of the head as if to put on a hat’ (one of the WCA descriptors), or mount or descend two steps unaided by another person, or cope with change, has no known correlation to your employment prospects. This depends not only on the job (you might be sitting all the time, with no need to get up and down steps) but most particularly on whether the employer will make adjustments, whether you have the support you need (for instance, to ‘cope with change’) and how motivated you are: how much you feel you could do it. External factors – whether an employer is prepared to give you a chance, whether you can as a deaf person get the communications support you need to do the job –are far more significant than whether you are or are not deaf or living with a long-term health condition.’

Liz’s analysis is grounded in the modern understanding of disability, set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities whereby disability ‘results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. 

This is the understanding of disability and long term health conditions that needs to underpin a real world approach to assessment.  It does not ‘write people off’ on the basis of their impairment or health condition – it constantly drives us towards the objective of barrier removal –  yet nor does it shy from recognising the prohibitive barriers that some people may presently encounter in moving wholly or partly into sustainable paid employment (including those intrinsic barriers which arise from a persons impairment or health condition).  It would create a much fairer, positive and proactive system than we presently have, allowing us to better determine who needs the greatest social protection while at the same time identifying the barriers that need to be removed and the support that needs to be provided if we are to make real progress once again in increasing the numbers of disabled people in paid employment.

At present, it is both Employment and Support Allowance and the DWP that are failing the fitness test.  It’s time for a radical rethink.

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