Liberal Democrat party conference: Webb wants single assessment and less talk of fraud


newslatestA Liberal Democrat government would aim to reduce the stress caused to disabled people by multiple assessments, ensure ministers stop talking up the issue of benefit fraud, and provide more personalised, locally-based employment support.

The party wants local authorities to be given a bigger role in delivering back-to-work support, which should make it easier for small, specialist voluntary organisations to win government contracts.

But pensions minister Steve Webb told the annual conference in Glasgow that he also wanted to see a more personalised approach to employment support, ensuring that “government programmes to get people back to work are focused on the individual, not forcing square pegs into round holes”.

And he said that disabled people should be treated fairly and not be forced to “jump through endless hoops simply to access what they are entitled to”.

This could mean a single combined assessment for disability benefits and social care needs, rather than “constant assessments and reassessments for different benefits and separately again by local authorities”.

And Webb said the government needed to do more to ensure benefit claimants “do not have their benefits withdrawn unexpectedly or without proper explanation”, instead suggesting a “yellow card” system.

This would ensure “someone receives a clear warning in the event of a  breach of benefit condition and is told what they need to do to put things right, only being sanctioned in the event of a knowing and deliberate further breach of the rules”.

Webb also attacked his coalition partner’s plans to freeze working-age benefits at the same time as cutting income tax for people on “double the national average wage”.

He said that the party’s “starting point for further deficit reduction has to be those who have done best as the economy recovers, not those who have missed out” and that any further cuts to benefits spending “should be the last resort, not the first place to look”.

He said his party’s vision was about “fighting discrimination in the workplace and in the jobs market, whether against older workers or people with disabilities”, and “creating a fair society with opportunities for all, not stigmatising those who happen to be on benefit”.

In a fringe meeting organised by Scope and the Centre for Social Justice, Webb was critical of his own Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for stigmatising benefit claimants by sending out press releases on benefit fraud which provide a “drip-drip” effect that convinces the public that claimants are all “on the take”.

He said this undermined the “really good stuff” DWP did to encourage employers to take on more disabled staff, through its Disability Confident campaign.

But in another fringe meeting, organised by London Councils, Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, suggested the government was putting “too much emphasis” on campaigns like Disability Confident.

She said afterwards that it would be good to know what Webb would do to address stigma, perhaps by “ditching the word welfare”, or ensuring ministers made more effort to “reframe the debate” and talk about the purpose of a benefit like personal independence payment.

She said: “This is not about people being dependant on the state and not doing anything, it should be about enabling them to do more.”

Sayce said that multiple assessments were “a huge waste of disabled people’s time and energy” and “stripping out” that red tape “must be a good thing”, but she said it was vital that this did not mean disabled people losing “national entitlements and rights”.

She suggested that it would be difficult to replace multiple assessments with just one assessment session, but that a “modular” system could work, with the first stage developing an understanding of the person’s impairment, before building on that by examining what employment, education or social care support they needed.

She also welcomed the call for more personalised employment support, but stressed that “we need to be clear what we mean by personalised”, which should mean enabling “the individual to have a lot of say and choice and control over what support they need”, and ensuring there is “good information on what works”, with “different sorts of support available inside or outside the workplace”.

Sayce had told the London Councils fringe event that local government was in a good position to “scale up” smaller employment programmes, such as those led by disabled people.

She said: “I think that if there was more flexibility and freedom we might begin to see some concept of the right to work [under the UN Convention on the Rights of  Persons with Disabilities]rather than being required to comply with national programmes that are not shown to work.

“Why should you have to comply with something that doesn’t work?”

8 October 2014