The Elephant Trap in the Room Part 2

So the fury at Freud rolls on, and no wonder.  Whatever his intent – that more people with ,mental health problems or learning disabilities (brigaded under the heading ‘mentally damaged’ by the questioner) should have the opportunity of work – his simple statement that such people are ‘not worth’ the minimum wage will, to quote Esther McVey, haunt him.  I hope he goes, not just because of this but because he’s responsible for bad policy, which has failed disabled people and wasted £billions of taxpayers money.  He was hired originally, I understand, to assist Tony Blair and John Hutton to win the case for DWP to spend money the Treasury under Gordon Brown refused to commit to employment support.  His answer was ‘payment by results’ facilitated by the ‘ame-del switch.’   This extract from a Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into the Work Programme provides details. The problem is that the projected savings are not being realised, which in turn appears to be pushing DWP towards ever more draconian sanctions regimes, deterrents and the demonisation of claimants.

But……. let’s contrast what underlay Freud’s comments with what various welfare reform opponents have advocated recently, and indeed an idea that was proposed by the Shadow Disability Minister Kate Green MP last week.

Here’s the transcript of the question asked and Freud’s response:

Questioner: “The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the Minimum Wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the Minimum Wage.

“We had a young man who was keen to do gardening; now the only way we managed to get him to work was actually setting up a company for him, because as a director in a company we didn’t have to pay the Minimum Wage, we could actually give him the earnings from that. But trying to actually maintain his support and allow him to actually work-which he  wanted to do–so to actually stay with benefits, and stay with some way of actually managing to continue on in that way. And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”

David Freud: “…You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the Minimum Wage.

“But we do have… You know, Universal Credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get…and get, you know, bolstered through Universal Credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small…there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually…”

Terrible eh?   Here’s what Carers Watch and Pats Petition wrote this year, under the heading ‘We need to talk about the elephant in the room’:

‘The real world out there is a competitive labour market. Employers hire the candidate who convinces them that they will be the most productive and stand up to the most pressure. The candidate who is the fittest, gets the job. That’s the real world of getting a job.

But what should an employer do when they are asked to take on a disabled person whose impairments will bring extra costs to the employer? No-one even asks the question. It’s the elephant in the room that no-one talks about. They’ll talk about reasonable adjustments and enabling people to overcome the barriers to being productive, but can that work for everyone?

 Until we start asking these questions, we won’t find the solution. Governments intervene in markets all the time to promote equality: but apparently not for disabled people.’

Hmmm, so David Freud talks about the apparently same ‘elephant in the room’ in response to a question at a Party Conference fringe session, and is roundly attacked, including by…. Pats Petition.   Now of course, Pats Petition and Carers Watch have not advocated that disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage when in work.   But the view they do appear to share is the idea that some disabled people are intrinsically less competitive and less likely to be hired by employers and that a level playing field cannot realistically be created through reasonable adjustments or supports alone.

Being a free marketeer, Freud links productivity to pay and presented with the idea that paying people beneath the minimum wage might be a way to secure jobs for people who he believes employers legitimately don’t regard as worth employing says he will go away and look at it, with a view to Universal Credit making up the shortfall.

Carers Watch and Pats Petition have suggested:

‘Because someone is less competitive it doesn’t mean they can’t work and contribute and there are still lots of options that might help them. Quotas, subsidies, campaigns, lots of opportunities for permitted and voluntary work. The government could intervene in the job market to make it a level playing field. Perhaps this needs a name – Supported Work.’  

Presumably then Carers Watch and Pats Petition would countenance the idea of subsidising the costs of employing a ‘less competitive’ disabled person.  But no matter how much less competitive a person is, they maintain that their labour should never be judged as worth less than the minimum hourly wage.

The problem with what both Carers Watch/Pats Petition’s suggestion and David Freud’s proposition (and an idea being considered by Labour -see below) share is an essentialist view of the impact of impairments and health conditions on a person’s competitiveness.  One does not need to be in denial of the functional limitations imposed by impairments and health conditions to understand that productivity or competitiveness are – for all people – highly contextual and influenced by a huge range of factors.   Yet this essentialist approach to the impact of a persons impairment on their productivity is finding voice elsewhere.  The proposals of ‘The New Approach‘ include some important ideas about taking a more flexible and rounded approach to identifying the factors influencing a persons work prospects and the support they may require, common with the proposals of the Poverty and Disability Taskforce established by the Labour Party.  But it goes on to propose that a person’s ‘reduced capability for work’ be expressed as percentage ‘limitation’,  that the person be given a ‘statement of support needs’ setting out that percentage and that ‘an employer has to make an adjustment for (the persons) limitation.’   Labour appear to be considering something very similar to this idea.

Employers do not make adjustments for the ‘limitations’ imposed by an impairment or health condition.  They make adjustments to remove the barriers that would otherwise amount to discrimination by preventing a person capable of doing a particular job from doing it.  As with the question of productivity and competitiveness, such barriers are specific to particular job roles, employers and individuals – they cannot be generalised.

In seeming to appropriate the idea of a statement of some kind. Labour appear to have forgotten why in the The Equality Act 2010 they prohibited employers from using pre-employment health questionnaires. Evidence showed that such questionnaires were used during recruitment processes to screen out disabled applicants.  Perhaps the ‘Statement of Support’ would only be passed to an employer once a job offer has been made, but the idea that disabled people’s job prospects will be aided by official advice saying that they have only 25% ‘unlimited’ capability to work strikes me as naive at best. How on earth could a person hope to bring a claim of discrimination by an employer when the government says they are officially less capable/productive than their peers?

As the World Report on Disability said: People’s capabilities depend on external conditions that can be modified by govern­ment action….the capabilities of people with disabilities can be expanded; their well-being, agency, and freedom improved; and their human rights realized’

Employers – and disabled people – can be supported to get in, get on and stay in work. The Access to Work Scheme (properly functioning) can be transformative and moreover has proven return on investment.  The State could do far more, by using existing resources more intelligently, as Liz Sayce and I set out in the report ‘Taking Control of Employment Support’ which proposed that the Work Programme and Work Choice be dissolved and the money put in the hands of disabled people and employers to commission the support and adjustments they identify are necessary.  The wider framework of public policy and services – from education, to health and social care, to public transportation – needs to be reformed to help create the opportunity infrastructure than optimises the chance of disabled people getting jobs and enjoying satisfying working lives.  Equality law needs to be robustly enforced and people should enjoy accessible modes of redress where they have faced discrimination.  The world of work itself is changing and can be changed further to include more people working in different ways, in different places, for different amounts of time.  The Welfare State should be reformed to under-write people making whatever contribution they are able to.

All these things must be tried before we judge anyone to be intrinsically incapable of work.  At the same time disabled people should not face sanctions and loss of income until such time as it is proven that they enjoy genuine equality in the labour market. And we should never, ever, consider paying anyone less than the minimum wage.


5 thoughts on “The Elephant Trap in the Room Part 2

  1. Learning disability needs to be separated out of pan disability. 60% of adults with learning disabilities say they want to work including those with complex needs. 6% are actually employed and only 0.5% of those with complex needs. When shown the business case for employing someone with learning disabilities employers are responsive. After reasonable adjustment the possible lack of productivity is more than made up for through 1-2-1 support funded from outside the business by support organisations or through a personal budget. This support in the form of trained job coaches is a little recognised answer by those with the power to make it happen. No one should be ruled out of being able to work and there are some hood examples of success demonstrated by the sustainable hub of innovative employment complex needs based in Kent. Real jobs for at least the minimum wage. If only politicians under any flag knew this! If only commissioners would spend money on real work outcomes!
    David barker
    Author of
    Just Do It. Getting a Job.
    A guide to families of adults with a learning disability.

  2. I think as soon as we start talking in terms of gov subsiding pay for employees with additional/changing needs, we are starting from the wrong place. I believe experienced people with long-term conditions/needs have a fundamental role to play in the changing landscape of workplace.

    People will soon be working until they are at least 68 – this will mean a growing percentage of the work force will face working with long-term conditions/changing needs. If we succumb to a situation, where one demographic with additional/changing needs can be paid less, then we risk it for all.

    From my heart, I have to say that I think many (wrongly) are trapped in the idea of work being 9-5 and 5 days a week. The nature of work is changing and how people are remunerated is changing. Product Design, Digital industries, Development Planning – there are many industries that are crying out for input from disabled people and quite willing to pay for it.

    If we start from a point of view that any group is worth less than another – we will squander everything. One person can be paid more than another but not to the point of it being considered a tokenism. For all my various conditions and there many connotations – I am worth no less than anybody less.

    The important thing is to genuinely believe that –

  3. My NHS employer thought that Access to Work should pay for all adjustments and Access to Work said the employer should pay as the adjustments were what they should have been doing anyway to make the job safe.
    My employer would not keep my workload at a level I could manage and instead increased it until I could no longer manage and had to leave.
    Because of the increased costs I could not afford to go to an Employment Tribunal.
    So everything is going in the wrong direction to help disabled/people get/stay in work.So all the best ideas in the world are going to get nowhere while productivity and squeezing more out of people are the priorities. There is no room anymore for fairness or loyalty to employees.

  4. At least Freud had the integrity to speak with his own honesty – and didn’t dress up his train of thought – that is what he had – a train of thought to open a debate. Of course his thought is wrong. But like Jess above – we have to acknowledge how our world works – it is not right. Everything is commodified and has a price – only the fittest and strongest are valued – and the notion of humankind is being lost.
    Dave too was right to point out the difference in employment opportunities between people with learning disabilities and other disabilities.
    For people with long term conditions there is clear and long standing research indicating the strongest predictor of outcomes is abilities (no doubt those abilities that are valued by a neoliberal system). There are some exceptional stories within the learning disability community that can be sighted – but these are not the norm and usually rely on others close to the person to have the capacity to provide excellent support not just in terms of performing the job but also around planning and networking. Good employment support is essential for many people with learning disabilities and this is becoming increasingly difficult to get for those who need to rely on state support via assessments of needs.

  5. Does Elephant Trap Part 2 stimulated by Lord Freud mean we are finally all moving forward in to some kind of consensus?

    Although we are still stunned that the architect of welfare reform has admitted he now needs to go away and consider those who are most affected by his changes. It is revealing Lord Freud has finally admitted his ESA invention isn’t working.

    What we all seem to agree on is – Houston we have a problem. Disabled people are not getting work. We can all agree on this.

    But that is as far as the agreement goes. We do not agree about what to do about it. Every one of us is offering a different solution. Market capitalists like Freud want to reduce the wages. Others suggest interventions like kite marks or quotas. Neil is devoted to transformative back to work initiatives and has faith which some of us have sadly lost for the near future.

    We would love to support transformative solutions but they are not yet here. Until they are – promoting them gives the politicians such an easy way out. Transformative solutions cost money. Lots of money. So they don’t happen. And saying that they believe in them gives the politicians a carte blanche for reducing safety and support in the meantime. This was the confidence trick that Lord Freud pulled at the inception of ESA.

    Until someone can show actual success in getting disabled people in to work – real success which could work for millions of people – and the money to pay for it – then Pat’s Petition and CarerWatch will continue to call for an Emergency Ceasefire

    and the end to harassment, sanctions and time limits in the short term.

    Houston – we still have a problem. Support the Ceasefire.

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