Liz Sayce, who produced a report on employment support for disabled people for the government three years ago, spoke out after the coalition published a report into its disability employment strategy, Disability Confident, which focuses on working with employers to remove barriers to employing disabled people.
In the report, ministers praise the government’s success in increasing the number of disabled people in employment by more than 250,000 in one year, through – they say – Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) programmes such as Work Choice and the troubled Access to Work scheme.
Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the news that some disabled people had benefited as more jobs had become available in the wider economy, but she said that disabled people were “still overwhelmingly unemployed and under-employed”.
She said there was a need for “a true disability and employment strategy”.
Sayce called on DWP to stop forcing disabled people to take part in schemes like the Work Programme, which are “failing disabled people”; invest in more personalised support; provide employers with “good, timely advice when they need it”; and force large employers to report on their own disability employment rates.
She also called for more of the successful peer support and mentoring schemes being run by user-led organisations, “because there is nothing so powerful as hearing from someone who has been in the same position as you and is now working”.
The previous day, Sayce had sent the government a similar message at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group (APPDG).
She suggested to the meeting that the government should do some “naming and shaming” of companies that had poor disability employment rates.
And she criticised DWP rhetoric that had painted benefit claimants as “scroungers”, and said: “One of the things I find really offensive is that when you walk into DWP the only public information banner [you see on the walls] is where to ring if you think someone is defrauding the benefits system.”
She warned that small-scale peer support programmes run by disabled people’s organisations had proved highly effective, but that these user-led organisations could not secure larger Work Programme contracts because they could not produce the evidence that their approaches worked, and could not secure that evidence without winning the contracts in the first place.
Sayce warned that the use of benefit sanctions for disabled people appeared to be “inexorably rising”, and added: “A really fundamental question to be asked is, ‘Is it right to be obliged to comply with a programme [the Work Programme] that you know doesn’t work?’
“Would you require people to take medications that do not work? It just seems to me to be bizarre.”
Alex Hendra*, business development manager at Inclusion London, told the meeting that her organisation has been developing a consortium of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) that offer employment and skills-based services.
Hendra said the DPOs were running “really good practice models getting really high rates of disabled people into employment” but could not secure funding “because the models for commissioning are impossible for a small organisation”.
She said: “That seems crazy. There needs to be a real rethink about how we use that knowledge and skill.”
The aim is for the consortium to put together a bid next year for funding from the European Union’s £10 billion-a-year European Social Fund.
Meanwhile, the mental health charity Mind has called for all people with mental health problems to be taken off mainstream back-to-work schemes and moved onto a new specialist programme.
A survey of more than 400 people who were receiving back-to-work support primarily because of a mental health condition found 83 per cent said that using back-to-work services through the Work Programme and/or Jobcentre Plus had made their mental health worse or much worse.
Three-quarters of those polled felt less able to work as a result of being on these schemes, while 86 per cent had needed more support from mental health services and/or their GP.
In a new report, Mind sets out a “bold and ambitious” vision of “what needs to be done to create a system that works”.
One mental health service-user, Richard, from Derbyshire, who was put on the Work Programme, said: “I went with an open mind and hoped they would be able to help, but was appalled by the service I received.
“They didn’t know anything about me or my mental health and rather than find this out, did a generic tick box assessment.
“The advisors had little knowledge about mental health and even the specialist knew little more than the others.
“Initially I was seeing someone different every time, which was difficult. Just going to the office was stressful, as it was a very busy and loud environment. The whole experience was very alienating.”
He was hospitalised after an overdose he took while on the Work Programme, but was so scared of being sanctioned that he still turned up for his Work Programme appointment two days later.
*To contact her, email: [email protected]
11 December 2014