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I am my Brother’s Keeper – why we must be prepared to think again about disability benefits

January 26, 2014

I was appalled to hear the triumphalist headline on the news yesterday celebrating that nearly a 1 million claimants for Employment Support Allowance had been found “fit for work” since the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment in 2008.

I might have been more impressed if the story had gone onto say that those million people, or at least a significant proportion of them, had gone on to get a job but, sadly, that does not seem to be the purpose of the exercise.

There is no issue I have felt angrier about in the 7 years I have worked in the field of mental health than the handling of this aspect of welfare reform, made worse by a disappointing level of consensus on this issue across the political spectrum.

Let’s get a number of things clear to start with.  Access to work can be a transformative opportunity for many disabled people, not only because it improves their economic status but because it can also boost self-esteem and social contact.  I have seen that journey at first hand and seen the difference it makes to people.

That observation is no less true for people with disabilities relating to their mental health than it is for people with physical disabilities. It is a scandal than less than 10% of people with schizophrenia are in work.  It is a scandal, however, which reflects less the attitudes of those individuals than it does the prejudices of society and the failure of our public services to organise a coherent system of employment support.

It therefore is right that the social security system is organised in a way which incentivises pathways into work.  I am extremely nervous about its implementation, given the track record of DWP on other issues and the concerns which have been raised by the NAO and others, but I am still supportive of the principles of Universal Credit.  It needs however some humility in managing its implementation and the willingness to take seriously the inevitable teething issues it will create for vulnerable people.

In other areas we need to have a different conversation.  The first is the Work Programme.  It is not fit for purpose, in particular in its ability to support people with disabilities and other complex needs into work.  Poor contracts and commercial incentives to cherry pick easier cases , a lack of understanding of what to do and a failure to integrate their efforts with those of other agencies have contributed to a catastrophic failure to find jobs for disabled people with around 90% of disabled participants in the programme without long term employment.  By any benchmark this is a system which needs fundamental rethinking if, as would be supported by many in the field, the real objective is to maximise opportunities for disabled people to work.

The second is the Work Capability Assessment and more widely the concept of using flawed quasi medical methodology to distinguish the “work ready” from the “work shy”.  The whole approach is judgemental and in practice has been riddled with problems so bad that, at times, in 40% of cases going to Tribunal, appeals have been upheld.  Such poor administration is a scandalously poor use of our taxes.

I have been shocked by what I have heard of the anxiety and distress which this test has caused people who are already in a vulnerable place due to the mental health problems or other disabilities.  If it was a bad decision to implement it for new claimants it has been particularly wrong to extend it all those who are already on Incapacity Benefit.

Even the Government and its Advisers accept it needs to be improved, although as I have written before, if this was a case of a faulty vehicle it would be taken off the road if it was found to have this level of defects.  More radically I hope there is a point at which we can stand back and rationally assess whether this kind of approach meets any real social or economic purpose.

More than anything else it is the rhetoric around this issue which sticks in the gullet.  We know that we are in difficult times economically and it is not wrong that the welfare budget is looked at for savings.  However in my view those savings should be made across the board not by picking on specific groups who can be safely demonised.

Finally I have a personal perspective on this issue.  I have two brothers.  Two of us have worked and paid taxes every day since we left university. One of us hasn’t and has been supported by benefits for 30 years.  Luckily his age and the nature of his disability (he is blind that most visible of disabilities) mean that his support hasn’t yet been questioned.   At the moment it is I will lose the last crumb of comfort that we live in a decent society which is prepared collectively to support the weak and vulnerable.  I am indeed my brother’s keeper.

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