There was moment during my speed-read of the Work, Health and Disability Green Paper that I felt I had entered either the world of ‘W1A’, the BBC’s almost documentary about itself or perhaps that of Nicola Murray-era The Thick of It and her brainchild ‘Fourth Sector Pathfinders’. At paragraph 69 the Green Paper says ‘We are committed to building a pipeline of innovation to rapidly improve support for individuals.’
Actually, that commitment is probably the best bit about the Green Paper. I’ve long advocated a shift away from top down commissioning to a model of promoting, speculating for and investing in innovative practice to support disabled people into work. I welcome the shift towards localism and personalisation and the recognition of the value of peer support. But the ‘innovation pipeline’ is also aimless, unattached to any measure of success or progress save the grand ambition to halve the disability employment gap. It’s not made clear what sort of resources could ever be committed to ‘rapidly scale up’ initiatives that prove effective. It reminded me of the Department for Health’s ambitions to reduce the number of people committed to and stuck in Assessment and Treatment Units – masking the impotence of government to really make a difference.
There do not seem to be any plans to tackle prejudice or stereotypes, beyond the Disability Confident programme. At this morning’s launch at Scope, Minister for Disabled People Penny Mourdant referred to ‘finding imaginative ways to ensure compliance with the Equality Act other then suing employers.’ I’d welcome that – measures such as Stonewall’s equality index and transparency measures concerning gender equality on company boards have proved powerful. But the introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees has seen a 54% drop in disability discrimination claims and the EHRC does not systematically enforce the Act. Enforcement and redress has to be part of the mix, albeit used creatively and proportionately. Rights are not rights without redress and weak enforcement merely says to employers that they can get away with it.
While the paper talks about personalisation and integration, there is not a single mention of personal budgets or personal health budgets, which is strange to say the least. If the government really want to reach those facing the most complex barriers then the wider public service support infrastructure (including the role of Personal Independence Payment) has to factor into this strategy. It’s not clear that it does.
When asked how the government would manage to get 1.2 million disabled people into work by 2020 when the OBR reports that the government aims to secure jobs for 900,000 more people overall, the Minister pretty much confirmed that ‘halving the Disability Employment Gap’ was little more than a distant aspiration. It is of course a more attractive and apparently noble way to frame policy than ‘cutting benefits for disabled people’ and my sense is that it is little more than a new frame, as cutting benefits expenditure – and the costs to business and the NHS of ‘sickness’ – appears to remain the primary driver.
Already we have the £30 per week cut in ESA from 2017 to those assessed as belonging to the Work Related Activity Group – that is people the government accepts are presently unable to work, but capable of some work related activity who will receive the JSA rate, presently around £73 per week. Given the real ‘innovation’ in this paper is the link drawn between promoting health and employment, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the much more definite link between poverty and ill health. With the WRAG cut the government is undermining its own professed aims and objectives.
Paras 130-137 of the Green Paper are opaque to say the least, but under the rubric of ‘personalisation’ appear to envisage some people who might presently be assessed as falling into the Support Group being subject to some degree of conditionality:
‘establishing entitlement to financial support could still be decided by an assessment, but that assessment could be used solely to determine whether an individual should get additional financial support. Decisions on whether someone should engage with Jobcentre Plus or specialist programmes could then be made through a separate process. This would avoid the current situation where someone’s entitlement to additional financial support can also result in them being given no employment support.’
That appears to separate the question of how much money a person should receive – which would I assume be an assessment based on common criteria – from whether they should be under any obligations to engage with job centre plus, which would be on a case by case basis (‘personalised’) and at the discretion of a ‘Work Coach.’ Conditionality and sanctions are not mentioned by name, but the section refers to ‘requirements’ and to ‘safeguards’, neither of which indicate voluntary participation.
There’s an infographic to help explain the proposed process but it reminded me of this optical illusion and made my head want to explode:
Ben Baumberg-Geiger very adeptly nailed the danger of this shift when he said:
‘We are therefore moving away from the dangers of an iron cage of bureaucracy – but this introduces a new danger, the danger of discretion.’
As I said on Sunday, the benefits-reform-cart has long zoomed way ahead of the increasing-employment-opportunity-horse. Again here, the timeline for implementation of the Green Paper’s proposals puts reforms to the benefits system at the front of the queue. While claiming that there was nothing in the Green Paper involving more cuts to the benefits budget, Mourdant also said this morning that the government hoped that they might be able to legislate to reform the WCA ‘during this Parliament.’ As others more knowledgeable about the WCA than me have pointed out – the government doesn’t really need legislation to reform the WCA. What seems to be on the cards then is legislation reform the current categories and the rules attached to them that make up ESA, so opening up the scope for deeper cuts in the next Parliament.
The government’s apparent good intentions to ‘halve the disability employment gap’ cannot be allowed to obscure the ineffectiveness of its proposals to do so, or to mask any duplicity regarding the true purpose of its actions. I promise to contribute towards this debate with an open mind, but on first reading I’m afraid an even worse deal for disabled people seems to be coming down the pipeline.