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DWP incapable of delivering a pathway from poverty for ill and disabled people

21 January 2019

The DWP is institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to bring about a “step-change in outcomes for ill and disabled people” concludes a new Demos short discussion paper.

Its author, Tom Pollard spent 18 months at the DWP on secondment from Mind. He has worked on social policy related to mental health for the last ten years, with a particular focus on social security.

His new paper identifies three problems with the DWP.

First, the department is afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where case handlers perceive employment support as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than a means of enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Where benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick.

Second, he says that the DWP has impoverished ambition. Departmental staff are often promoted from frontline roles working in job centres. While such expertise is valuable, he argues that staff often seem “incapable of thinking about radical solutions” instead gravitating towards conditionality and sanctions.

Third, there is a fundamental distrust of the DWP by its users. Public communications from the DWP over recent years have often not helped the situation, focusing more on tackling fraud and cutting costs than on

providing positive and empowering support. Pollard stresses that' harder-to-help' groups, such as ill and disabled people, have felt particularly targeted by this rhetoric.

Pollard concludes that:

“For me, the implication of what I witnessed during 18 months working at the DWP was clear: if the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

Pollard proposes a variety of alternative approaches to supporting ill and disabled people.

Firstly, decoupling benefit conditionality and employment support. As soon as support is linked to the threat of punishment he says, it stops feeling like support for these 'harder-to-help' groups, and it stops having any chance of working.

Secondly, transferring responsibility for helping ‘harder-to-help’ groups away from the DWP.

For example, greater onus could be placed on the Department for Health and Social Care, to support people with health related barriers to employment.  Those who have substantial skills-related barriers to employment could be supported to access training and qualifications by the Department for Education, which holds responsibility for education and skills funding. 

Lastly, Pollard says that specialist third sector organisations could play a greater role in supporting these groups, making use of the expertise, trust and rapport they already hold in relation to their clients.

Welcoming the new Demos paper, DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Officer Ken Butler said:

“Disabled people will readily agree about the problems with the DWP Pollard identifies. Especially its focus on work conditionality and the threat of benefit sanctions. Many we also support his conclusion that the DWP is incapable of the radical reform and innovation that’s needed to take disabled people out of poverty. 

And his proposed solutions are innovative and very worthy of discussion. Although those with experience of claiming tax credits will have grave doubts about benefit and pension payments responsibilities being moved to HMRC.”