Why campaigning for the right to work and employment should be a priority

The welfare reform debate is confined to a single question: which Party can make it most difficult to get onto and stay on social security benefits.   And because successive governments have struggled to develop programmes which genuinely help people into employment, the focus of welfare reform has increasingly become one of making access to social security as frustratingly complex and insecure as possible and of managing individual behaviours within a scheme of required activities and punitive sanctions for non-compliance, such that people who fail can have their benefits justifiably cut.   So toxic is the debate surrounding welfare reform that anything which deflects from this core goal merely bounces off, attacked as celebrating a ‘something for nothing culture.’   There is simply no space for alternative ideas to breathe.

This is why welfare reform does not then offer a viable political or practical vehicle through which to anticipate improving the living standards of disabled people and people with long term health conditions in the immediate term.  Sure, defending against further regressive cuts may be important, but focusing all campaigning efforts on the benefits system is a strategic and tactical mistake.  Not only is doing so largely futile in this political environment, it also ignores where the real opportunity to improve living standards and opportunities lies.  We need to campaign outside of this space.

The strange thing about the years since the financial crash of 2008 is that unemployment didn’t rise to anything like the levels of previous economic downturns.  Disabled people’s employment was not disproportionately affected by the downturn either.  And now employment is growing as the economy begins to recover.  Disabled people and people with long term health conditions should benefit from this recovery.  This is why if campaigners genuinely want to tackle poverty and ensure an adequate standard of living for disabled people and people with long term health conditions they will use the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act next year to launch a major campaign on the right to work and employment

‘But…..’ I can already hear people saying ‘….what of those who cannot work?’  Well, bear with me and I will explain why my proposal is designed genuinely to ensure ‘work for those who can, security for those who cannot.’

The right to work and employment is entirely different to an obligation to engage in ‘work focused activity’ as a condition of receiving benefits.   Campaigning for people to have opportunities for work and employment is not the same as campaigning for people to be made to do work.   A focus on the right to work and employment places the emphasis on addressing the factors which deny people opportunities to do so, like the availability of suitable jobs, discrimination, access to education and training and critically the nature of work itself and how accommodating this can be to people requiring atypical working arrangements.  

The opportunity here is not only to pinpoint these barriers and to generate new momentum to secure their removal, but in doing so to also expose the distance which continues to exist between many people and a real prospect of sustainable employment.   This in turn offers the prospect of exposing the blunt ineffectiveness of the Work Capability Assessment, the uselessness of the Work Programme and the unreasonableness of the increasingly punitive conditions and sanctions faced by those who are excluded from the labour market through no fault of their own.  It allows us to demonstrate that unemployment is not a matter of individual failure, but of systemic failure.  Yet unlike many recent campaigns against welfare reform, the price of doing so need not be the deliberate lowering of expectations or of disability activists appearing to turn their backs on rights and equality.   

This is why a campaign for employment and work – entirely removed from the toxicity of welfare reform – holds the prospect of promoting both opportunity and security.  Any takers?


16 thoughts on “Why campaigning for the right to work and employment should be a priority

  1. This is brilliant, Neil, and it also, subtly, allows the needs of those who are genuinely unable to work, because the barriers to working are so great, to be considered. Those who will argue that your proposal DOESN’T take account of the needs of those who face insurmountable impairment or illness related barriers to work are either still hoping for a political miracle that isn’t going to happen, or haven’t read your blog properly! Good stuff!

  2. A superlative blog piece, Neil, and I certainly agree with Jane’s astute comment. But with Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits policies forming a key part of the Tory party’s election campaign, it will be difficult to escape the welfare reforms and the toxic rhetoric associated with them, and practically impossible to sidestep IDS himself. Now we know why he wasn’t ousted in the recent cabinet reshuffle. I expect the election campaign to devolve into a nasty, mudslinging affair, with people shouting at each other rather than considering the brilliance of your proposals.

  3. Whilst I still think the blogpost is superb, I do have some concerns, best illustrated by using an example. I’m basing my example on a real person, but I hope that not mentioning a name will allow a bit of anonymity!

    Mrs C has had ME for more than 20 years. The Government is determined that everyone who can work, should do so, with whatever adjustments are necessary. Mrs C therefore attends JCP for an assessment of what support she needs to go to work. She explains that she does not know from one day/week to the next, whether she will be well enough to get up, washed and dressed, never mind go to work. The assessor refuses to accept that Mrs C’s illness is as serious as it is, but takes account of her inability to get up and out of the house, and decides she can work for 16 hours per week at home. Mrs C is helped to identify work she can do at home for 16 hours per week (a miracle in itself) but she simply doesn’t have the physical or mental stamina to do that much work and her employer is obliged to let her go. However, the assessor decides Mrs C is exaggerating her illness. She is found ineligible for any long term sickness benefit because she is deemed able to work for 16 hours per week and is also, therefore, intentionally unemployed.

    My concern, in a nutshell, is that if the emphasis is put on significant adjustments that are intended to enable almost everyone to work, the availability of such adjustments can be used to effectively preclude someone who genuinely can’t work from both paid work and income-replacement benefits.

    How can your framing be tweaked to protect those who we would all agree are, frankly, too ill to work, but who an assessor may judge able to work with significant adjustments? I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m just considering your framing in the current political, economic and social context which is toxic for anyone who genuinely can’t work but who may be deemed otherwise.

    • Well I think the identification of such significant barriers – whether external to the individual or a consequence of their impairment or health condition – would be evidence of the need not to subject the person to unreasonable expectations, especially where the things involved in overcoming those barriers are beyond reasonable expectation or where they would not in any way ameliorate the impact of impairment itself. What I’ve proposed is something to challenge the imposition of conditions on the basis of entirely theoretical and abstract assessments of work capability with one based on a ‘real world’ assessment. In that sense I hope it would offer greater security than the current approach. But by identifying these barriers it would also help us to shape a programme for barrier removal. Does that help at all?

      • It does, so far as it goes. But what’s going to change, under your model, in terms of the attitudes of some JCP employees? I appreciate they may be in a minority, but it’s very easy to see that someone with a background of working in a toxic welfare environment could impose unrealistic expectations, which would eventually lead to exclusion. For more detail of the reality, read the blog “Limited capability for work”, esp the post that was written to coincide with the publication of “Fulfilling Potential” by Mind. Basically, telling someone who’s been ill for decades that they’re exaggerating is unlikely to stop if the same civil servants remain in post.

        My real concern is that the emphasis on dismantling employment barriers needs to be done in a spirit of realism and support. The danger is that Government will get so committed to removing employment barriers that they will assume everyone can work – and we know some can’t due to the complexity of their health condition.

        We need to take on board that the operational is as critical as the policy, because there are a limited number of assessors & JCP officers to be parcelled around, and many will be directly transferred from their current posts.

        Just musings….

  4. Dear Neil, I entirely agree. I have always said that the agenda must be set by disabled people, and not framed by the priorities of others. Action on Disability and Work UK feels that we need to push for our representation in the meetings where national decisions are taken about employment policy for disabled people, in the same way that disabled people have made inroads on health and social care policy. Best wishes, Andy Rickell

  5. Hi Jane

    I think the other key thing I’m trying to say is that in promoting the right to work and employment we should stop starting with the benefits system and how it assesses individual work capability and instead focus energy on fostering a more open and receptive labour market. When we think about other groups who face significant unemployment or labour market disadvantage we do not feel compelled to look at how to improve their job prospects by reference to benefit rules. So we shouldn’t in relation to disabled people and people with long term health conditions. The more we decouple the question of employment opportunity from social security related conditionality the better in my view as it will allow us to recognise and focus on addressing the real barriers to employment.

    Best wishes, Neil

    • That makes sense, Neil, but for one issue – money. No Government is likely to pay out of work benefits (or equivalent) to people who are in paid work. So if people are to have money to live on, they either have to earn it by working or demonstrate that there’s a reason they can’t work despite many and varied possible adjustments. The reason this is different from other people is that firstly disabled people are more likely to be poor (we know that from research) and therefore have little or no financial “cushion”, and secondly that my understanding is that there is a consequence, in relation to getting the benefits you need to live on if you’re not earning, if you’re deemed to have made yourself intentionally unemployed. You probably would be viewed as intentionally unemployed if you had to leave a job despite significant adjustments and the person making the decision about whether you were intentionally unemployed didn’t believe or understand the impact of your condition on your physical and mental stamina and/or why the adjustments weren’t sufficient.

      Your framing is excellent, Neil, and I’m not disputing that. I’m simply trying to tease out how it might work and what impact it could have on those most would describe as chronically ill, with conditions that make it challenging to find adjustments that are, in fact, reasonable! (This could be a serious issue with UC, where top-ups for those unable to work full time or earn min wage full time equivalent will depend on a WCA being accurate!)

      I hope that helps explain my concerns. As I said, I’m only concerned because people need money to live, and enabling someone to work, with adjustments, raises expectations that work will be their primary source of income. So the safety net needs to be stronger, because the presumption has changed and people for whom being well enough to work at all is a significant challenge could be put under much more pressure, as an unintended consequence of a much more positive framing around employment, including reasonable adjustments.

      You may not feel this discussion has gone in the direction you need it to, but it is an important one to have all the same!!

  6. Yes, this is worth fighting for because even if you don’t think employers really want to hire disabled people, it will help nail the lie that disabled people don’t want to work.

    Maybe the social security struggle has become so distracting and demanding that some of us are too spent to even think about work – another of the many ways in which welfare reform is counter-productive.

  7. Have we made any progress at all? The 1975 discussion flags up the circular nature of the question – can you work? It’s still circular. Who decides. You or them? Which is more empowering?

    Jane’s Mrs C feels overwhelmed and unable to work. The Assessor who has never had ME thinks she is exaggerating. Who decides?

    I’m with Mrs C but many won’t be.

    The nature of benefits – the miserable level of life they sustain seems enough of a motivator to me.

    If Mrs C still wants to opt for benefits – let her – her choice. This is the Green Citizens Income approach. It has far right and far left support (unusual but true) for all workers. I don’t think all workers as yet but definitely people with illness or disability.

    Then you can concentrate fully on how to improve labour market opportunities confident that Mrs C can be left in peace. Regularly invited to take part in work activity but with no threats.


  8. I absolutely agree that a campaign to improve the livelihoods and the social security system for disabled people must focus on the real world barriers to work that you list, and should be tied to the struggle for removal of those barriers. The ESA and the WCA should be integrated with Access to Work and other employment support, as I recommended in my Fulfilling Potential? report. At the moment they are totally disconnected.

    But I don’t agree that it’s futile to work towards an alternative to the hated ESA regime, and to campaign to expose the injustice and stigma built into the welfare system. Yes, the government has successfully tainted the concept of welfare and turned popular opinion against it, but the same is increasingly true for Human Rights. In the same way they reduced the notion of welfare to the Mick Philpots they are now attempting to reduce Human Rights to passports for jihadis or voting rights for pedophiles so they can justify withdrawing Britain from the ECHR. Does that mean we stop standing up for Human Rights because it’s becoming too toxic?

    I would love disability campaigning to be removed from the toxicity of welfare reform but that would mean leaving out DLA/PIP as well as ESA from your campaign since all “disability benefits” are tarred with the same brush in the rightwing media. I take it you intend to campaign for DLA/PIP, Access to Work and the DDA, but not mention ESA. But whitewashing ESA from your agenda simply lends support to the strivers vs shirkers narrative. That not only feels like you’re discriminating between the deserving and undeserving disabled, it also goes against what you rightly say: that incapacity to work is as much about how our competitive economy is organised as about inherent impairment. What it is not about is shirkers and scroungers or people who expect too little of themselves.

    I don’t recognise any “deliberate lowering of expectations” or “turning their backs on rights and equality” in my activism or other online networks of disability activists. I just see people resisting oppression and persecution, just as we’ve always done.

  9. Dear Catherine – thanks for your comments. It’s interesting you draw a parallel with the Human Rights Act as one of the things I’m involved with is work to try to shift public opinion positively in support of human rights through more sophisticated communications. That is in essence what I am talking about in relation to these proposals. They do not propose to abandon the question of those are unable to work at all but rather to find a way to be more successful at promoting (& reconciling in the way that we promote) the rights of both those who are able and wish to work and those who are not hence I say ‘The opportunity here is not only to pinpoint these barriers and to generate new momentum to secure their removal, but in doing so to also expose the distance which continues to exist between many people and a real prospect of sustainable employment. This in turn offers the prospect of exposing the blunt ineffectiveness of the Work Capability Assessment, the uselessness of the Work Programme and the unreasonableness of the increasingly punitive conditions and sanctions faced by those who are excluded from the labour market through no fault of their own.’ In short, my argument is that it is only by focusing on the right to work and employment & shining a lens on discrimination, barriers and the general unreceptiveness of the labour market that we will expose the inherent unreasonableness of ESA/WCA, not only for those whose impairments or health conditions are a primary barrier to them working, but for the many many others who could work were these external barriers not in their way. At the same this approach offers an opportunity to re-position the way DLA is regarded, not as another ‘benefit’ but as part of the support system people need to get on in life, aligned to social care and access to work etc.

    So this is about our starting point and how we can be better at winning the case for both social security and employment opportunity without one coming at the price of the other

    Best wishes, Neil

  10. Thanks Neil – I’m in agreement with your strategy of exposing barriers to work and demonstrating how ESA/WCA are ineffective in addressing disabled people’s distance from the labour market. I wrote about that here http://leftfootforward.org/author/catherine-hale/ I feel especially that this work needs to happen in relation to chronic illnesses like mine (ME/CFS), of which there is even less understanding among policy makers than more well represented types of impairment.

    Where I still take issue is on your call to abandon the frame of welfare because it’s too toxic. Your own work with Human Rights shows just how important it is to try to shift public opinion through more sophisticated communication, as you say. Those of us trying to shift public opinion in favour of the concept of social security shouldn’t be denounced as traitors to the cause of inclusion and employment rights. Sometimes your writing implies we are.

    Best wishes,

  11. Hi Catherine

    I certainly don’t intend to portray anyone as ‘traitors.’ I think what we have arrived at is a situation where people are pulling in other directions because of the tactics they’ve employed to achieve equally legitimate goals and this risks undermining the pursuit of both the right to work and employment and the right to social protection. I’m searching for a way to reconcile these, not for one to trump the other (Let’s not forget the right to an adequate standard of living and to social protection is itself a human right and that poverty robs people of the means to take control of their lives and to participate)

    Your response actually captures the challenge – you say we shouldn’t abandon the frame of welfare because its too toxic, but then you go on to say ‘those of us trying to shift public opinion in favour of the concept of social security…’ Social security does not possess, in my view, the toxicity of ‘welfare’ as a frame and is not seen as the ‘opposite’ of paid employment. In relation to human rights, we now have a detailed appreciation of how to make conflicted groups – of which there are many – feel more supportive through the careful use of frames, messages and spokespeople, including how to avoid triggering unhelpful responses. We need to do the same around disability, benefits and work in my view.

    As I suggested in a previous blog, and which was chosen as the title for the recent Just Fair report that I helped with, a common goal is ‘Dignity and Opportunity for All’?

    Best wishes, Neil

  12. “Let’s not forget the right to an adequate standard of living and to social protection is itself a human right and that poverty robs people of the means to take control of their lives and to participate”

    Hear, hear! I believe all disability campaigners, whatever language they use or whatever their particular focus is, subscribe to these values.

    Thanks for clarifying your position,


  13. People need help also to stay in work when they become disabled. This has become harder recently as now large employers have to pay for so much of the cost of Access to Work recommendations themselves and are unwilling to do this.
    In addition, because legal aid has become harder to get and tribunal fees introduced, the Equality Act has now pretty well unenforceable, and employers know it.
    So changes are going in the wrong direction at the moment. Reversing these changes would be a good start.

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