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Statement on the DWP green paper: “Improving Lives”

Disability Rights UK sets three tests for the policies that flow from the Green Paper.

The Green Paper sets out four areas for change in paragraph 71: supporting more people into work, assessment for benefits for people with health conditions, supporting employers to recruit with confidence and embed a healthy working culture in the workplace and finally supporting employment through health and high quality care for all.

Disability Rights UK sets three tests for the policies that flow from the Green Paper:

1. Will the Government’s proposals produce a fairer system and one that disabled people can trust?

This first test stems from the Green Paper’s own statement about the disability employment gap:

“This is one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today and the Government cannot stand aside when it sees social injustice and unfairness”. (paragraph 23).

One example of unfairness is the current Work Capability Assessment, which focuses on how individuals function – not on the barriers people actually face in seeking work, nor on what support and adjustments they would need to make work a reality; and which, to quote the November 2016 UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities report, makes people feel ‘processed’ rather than understood.

The Green Paper will pave the way for success only if it leads to a complete overhaul of the Work Capability Assessment. We want a system that encourages and supports people to try work where they feel they can, rather than threatening people with sanctions if they do not comply with (sometimes meaningless) activities.

There is a new and welcome emphasis on voluntary engagement with the Work and Health programme – yet there is mention of a mandatory work and health conversation with people in the Support Group. We believe the top priority is rebuilding trust and signalling a move away from processes that generate fear of sanctions and impose poverty. The Green Paper does ask questions about how the assessment should be reformed. We believe that reform should be absolutely fundamental. Trust in the system can only be built upon the fairness of its operation.

2. Does the Green Paper offer policy interventions in both the supply and demand side of the economy?

To date, virtually all the sanctions, behavioural ‘nudges’ and pressures have been placed on the individual – not on the employer, who has the power to open up job opportunities. We believe the Government’s aspiration to halve the disability employment gap will only be realised if employers change their behaviour. Whilst some are excellent, others are unable or sometimes unwilling to adjust their workplaces or ditch their preconceptions.

However well an individual is supported, they will only get a job if an employer actually employs them. The Green Paper has not announced new incentives or requirements on employers – such as auditing or reporting their baseline positions; nor does it require the public sector to award contracts to companies that have a good track record in employing disabled people (as happens in the USA); nor does it offer a comprehensive Helpline for small employers who may need advice if they are unfamiliar with (for instance) how to make workplace adjustments.

The Disability Confidence initiative is a start, but it measures process not outcomes: it could in theory grow without impacting on actual numbers of disabled people employed. We also need more enforcement of the Equality Act in relation to those employers who simply continue to discriminate.  

The Green Paper does ask whether more should be done to incentivise employers – to which the answer is a resounding yes. The strategy will only work if employers are nudged and required to employ disabled people in greater numbers – and indeed if government helps equip disabled people to start their own businesses or create new markets in which new businesses can flourish employing them or other disabled people.

The Office of Budget Responsibility’s economic forecast for the period 2015-2020 predicts a net 900,000 new jobs in the economy by 2020 (1). Even if every one of these jobs were to be taken by disabled people the disability employment gap would not have been halved.

Without linking this Green Paper to the industrial strategy that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently consulting upon, it is unclear how disabled people will become the people that fill future skills shortages or be involved in the co-creation of the opportunity to work.

3. Will the Green Paper’s plans for support lead to halving the disability employment gap?

The third test is will the support proposed in the Green Paper lead to achieving the Government ‘s own manifesto commitment? There are some positive proposals for employment support – notably the expansion of peer support for employment, more tailored employment support, work experience for young disabled people and an innovation fund to test and scale up promising processes.

However, ERSA estimates that the planned reduction in funding from the current Work Programme and Work Choice to the new Work and Health Programme will lead to a reduction in numbers of disabled people supported from 300,000 to 160,000 over a 2.5-year period, with potential reduction of employment outcomes as a consequence (3). The numbers of people getting into work through this new programme should be supplemented by:

a) additional funding for peer support and the innovation fund and

b) more people being supported to retain their jobs if they acquire an impairment (with proposals for improved support from health, social care and employers). But even so, it is not clear that these policies combined will make a sufficient dent in the numbers out of work to make halving the disability employment gap a reality.

There is one way that Government could contribute more funding to employment support: to invest all the savings from the cut to Employment and Support Allowance from 2017 (for people in the Work Related Activity Group) into employment support (3).

DR UK is absolutely opposed to the cut to ESA and believes the House of Lords was right to vote against it twice. However, if it goes ahead, an investment of the whole savings into employment support could help strengthen the support offer to disabled people.

Overall, there are some seeds of positive ideas that go beyond current policy and practice, with potential long term benefits: Peer to peer support, inclusive technology award schemes, the innovation fund, work experience for young disabled people, more localised commissioning of employment support.

However, it is unclear whether this will lead to the Manifesto commitment to halving the disability employment gap or to the greater prize on offer – a more productive and inclusive economy. The Social Market Foundation as long ago as 2007 estimated that if the skills of disabled and non-disabled people were equalised this would be worth some £13 billion to the economy (4).

Philip Connolly, Policy and Development Manager said,

“The Green Paper doesn’t restate the Government’s manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap. Its plans overall focus on a ten-year timeframe and there are no interim targets.

We would like to see radical changes to generate trust amongst disabled people in the system; together with projected steps towards halving the disability employment gap, which strengthen the requirements on employers and the support to individuals in order to lead to progressive improvement in employment and pay for disabled people. We have waited almost three years for this green paper and disabled people deserve a plan as ambitious as the Governments’ manifesto commitment, the green paper isn’t that plan. The Government’s response to its consultation on the green paper is the chance to really deliver on a plan.”

References

1) http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.org.uk/March2016EFO.pdf

2) “More than words: Rethinking our employment support for disabled jobseekers” WPI Economics for ERSA, October 2016

3) http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7649/CBP-7649.pdf

4) http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/Publication-Disability-Skills-and-Work-Raising-our-ambitions.pdf