Noelia Garella, 31, Argentina’s first qualified nursery teacher with Down Syndrome Picture: Getty
The much awaited Employment, Disability and Health Green Paper will finally be published on Monday. One might welcome the fact that government has chosen to consult on a Green Paper rather than push ahead with a White Paper had it not already decided that from 2017 it will cut by £30 a week the benefits of those who in future are assessed as not presently capable of work. Where welfare to work is concerned, the benefits reform cart has long since run far ahead of the employment support horse. The long-term promise of support into work is continually used to justify immediate term increases in coercion and cuts. The massive failure of the government’s work programmes for disabled people are attributed to the recalcitrance of those who have to endure them. This in turn is used to justify more coercion and cuts, presented as ‘incentives to work’ and on it goes. As if to prove this point, news headlines clearly based on DWP pre-briefing of the Green Paper this evening are majoring on a planned ‘overhaul of the Work Capability Assessment’. The benefits cart rushing off into the distance once again?
Nothing will change until this formula is turned on its head. The only way to do that is by rejecting the dead hand of ‘welfare to work’ as the framing of policy and discourse. The opportunity to do so has come in the form of the government commitment to halve the disability employment gap – the gap being of course that in equality between disabled and non- disabled people.
If we take equality of opportunity as our focus and measure we can begin again to cast light on the genuine barriers to disabled people getting in, staying in and getting on at work – the things that should form the focus of an employment green paper worth the megabytes it will take up on our laptops.
So what should be in a employment strategy focused on equality of opportunity? I think it should include the following ingredients:
Sweeteners and sanctions for employers
Employers need to recognise clearly the benefits of employing, developing and retaining disabled talent. But they also must face a clear cost when prejudice, discrimination and destructive convenience gets in the way. Theresa May recently celebrated the good things that government can do. Well why not pick up where the last Labour government left off and create a new version of the future jobs fund, targeted at the employment of disabled people and people with long term health conditions? At the same time, government should emulate legislation in the Netherlands, creating clear financial incentives for employers to support people who have developed an impairment or health condition to come back to work, such as extending the period of statutory sick pay and should promote and strengthen rights to flexible working for disabled people. It should also abandon employment tribunal fees, properly support the EHRC to promote and enforce the Equality Act and extend its audit of public services regarding race discrimination to other grounds, including disabled people.
Skills and qualifications
The one group to have seen little change in their employment prospects over the past 20 years is people with no or low formal qualifications. A large percentage of that group have a disability or health condition. Yet the gap in educational attainment between children with and without Special Educational Needs has actually grown since 2009. Skills rarely features in any discussion about supporting more disabled people into work and disability rarely features in discussions about improving the skills of our workforce. In 2007, the Social Market Foundation estimated that bringing disabled people’s skills levels up to the national average would generate £13 billion for the economy. Improving skills offers a clear win win and should be at the heart of an effective strategy. This will also demand that skills and training programmes are genuinely accessible and inclusive.
Access to work should be given a major financial boost and radically overhauled (as part of a wider reform set out below). A personalised system of employment support will pre-assess people for potential workplace adjustments and support, providing people with a ‘in principle’ commitment to provide them which can be shared with prospective employers and that commitment must be honoured in the fastest time possible once a job offer has been made. Once in employment, access to work should follow the individual, with people able easily to transfer items of equipment or the costs of support workers from one job to the next, as appropriate. Administrative costs must be kept to a minimum to ensure that the budget is spent efficiently. Employers and individuals should be able to access high quality information and advice, including a ‘Pinterest’ for workplace adjustments where people can go for inspiration and guidance and access to expert advice via a specialist online or telephone helpline.
Public service reform and investment
James Purnell was on the right path with the Right to Control in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, integrating public services around the individual through personal budgets that can include employment support, support with long term health needs, social care and costs related to education and skills. The government has continued along some of these paths, through personal health budgets, personal budgets in the Care Act and talk of personal budgets in relation to Access to Work. But it is still a fragmented system, and social care in particular is unfit for purpose as regards working age disabled people who require its support to hold down a job. My suggestion? Be brave and truly radical: a single integrated system of support for disabled people from age 16 to retirement. Let’s call it the ‘Access to Living Scheme.’ Building on the blueprint of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia, it would represent a major investment in and change of approach to disabled people by a Conservative government, echoing and building on its past radicalism in areas like Disability Living Allowance and Direct Payments, while ensuring scarce public resources are spent in the most efficient and effective ways.
We live in hope…