Disability employment strategy: More work needed, say campaigners


newslatestA new paper that sketches out the first details of the government’s new disability employment strategy has been given a half-hearted welcome by experts.

In a paper providing details of “discussion so far” on the strategy, Conservative ministers Esther McVey and Mike Penning call for a more “personalised approach” to employment support for disabled people.

Another key idea is for a new “gateway” to support for disabled people, to ensure they receive “the right support at the right time” to find them jobs or help them back into work, with specialist support likely to be more personalised, with a wider range of local provision on offer, and supported – rather than sheltered – employment.

The paper hints that the specialist work scheme Work Choice could be replaced, or at least heavily changed.

But the Work Programme – which has done little so far to secure jobs for disabled people – looks certain to stay.

There are also several proposals in the paper to improve advice, support and information, “raise awareness”, and improve existing schemes such as Access to Work and Two Ticks, while eligibility criteria will be used to select which claimants receive anything more than “a basic, universal offer of support”.

Andy Rickell, chief executive of Action on Disability and Work UK, said the paper had “possibilities” but the implementation plan – due next year – would be “key”.

He said the “direction of travel” appeared to be towards more personalisation and local provision, as employment support was “20 or 30 years behind” direct payments and social care, with disabled people’s user-led organisations (DPULOs) “almost entirely absent”.

He warned that ministers would “really like to do personalisation, but they really haven’t decided that they know how they are going to do it”.

He said: “Disabled people need to have much more say over how employment support is provided, in the same way that we now have much more say over how social care support is provided.”

But he praised DWP for the paper’s “honest reflection on that fact that, generally, specialist government schemes for disabled people have not worked”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) welcomed the idea of a new gateway designed to secure faster support for disabled people, but warned that many of the ideas in the paper needed “more development”.

Liz Sayce, DR UK’s chief executive, said: “At present, people who are out of work due to disability first have to go through the deeply-distrusted work capability assessment, with its often long-drawn-out, wrong decisions, delays and appeal, and meanwhile get no help at all with employment.

“The new gateway could stop the long waits and loss of confidence, by giving at least some people a chance to get tangible help to get a job.”

She also welcomed a new “one stop shop” for information and advice for employers.

And she said there was a need for “a solid, funded plan for personalised and peer support” that was run by disabled people’s own organisations, which would be “a cost effective way of supporting more disabled people than now”.

Sayce also raised concerns about the idea of rationing support through new eligibility criteria.

She said: “If the government is serious about increasing the number of disabled people in employment it must increase investment. This country should not be providing the necessary support only to the selected few.”

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she thought the new government paper was “very thin”.

She said: “Disabled people were looking for something much more meaty, much more joined-up, much more coherent about the different elements necessary to support disabled people in the workplace, addressing the serious problems with the work capability assessment and the Work Programme – it just skirted round those.”

She also criticised the paper’s failure to suggest a bigger role for local authorities, in commissioning local provision and perhaps providing support themselves.

And she criticised the paper’s AtW measures as “very vague… It is not clear to me how they are going to improve the take-up and make sure it really works as part of an effective package of support for disabled people in the workplace, and how disabled people will have a really strong say. We need much, much more detail.”

Neil Crowther, the former director of human rights at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, co-wrote a report with Sayce which called for the government’s sprawling work programmes to be scrapped, and replaced with a system in which disabled people could decide for themselves how to spend money allocated to help them into work.

In a blog about the government’s new paper, Crowther says DWP’s flagship Disability Confident programme is “relying on approaches to nurture the engagement and willingness of employers that have been around for the last 10-15 years or more”.

He is critical of the apparent decision to stick with the “uniform, pointless and wasteful” Work Programme, which has a success rate with employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants which “by the government’s own measures amounts to worse than doing nothing at all”.

He adds: “At a time of eye-watering spending cuts this is nothing short of scandalous and appears to have little interest in evidence of what works in helping people into jobs.”

And he says the idea of rationing support by focusing on those closest to the job market will only “perpetuate and deepen existing inequalities and deny support to those who need it most”.

He says: “The promise of personalisation is rendered almost immediately empty by saying most will be channelled to the useless uniformity of the Work Programme, while a rationed ‘specialist offer’ may provide some degree of self-directed support but only to those ‘nearest to the labour market’.”

He adds: “There is nothing of any significance regarding what all evidence confirms could be the most significant game changer for many disabled people – improved skills and qualifications.”

19 December 2013