Disabled people know what it will take to help them into work. Will Labour listen?

Labour must prove it has changed its spots since the days of hiring Lord Freud as welfare reform adviser under Tony Blair.

Labour must prove it has changed its spots since the days of hiring Lord Freud as welfare reform adviser under Tony Blair

Narrowing the 30 per cent disability employment gap will be a cornerstone of Labour’s policy on disability, Kate Green and Stephen Timms announced last week.

But is this a genuine move to win the votes of Britain’s 11 million disabled population, worse hit than any other group by austerity policies? Or is it more posturing to out-tough the Tories on welfare?

The dual aim of fulfilling disabled people’s potential while bringing down the benefits bill sounds like a no brainer, except that we were here with Labour 10 years ago. Similar pronouncements gave rise to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in 2008 and few policies have done more damage to the fortunes of sick and disabled people.

Every other day a death is directly or indirectly linked to the brutal assessment system, incorrect decisions and benefit sanctions. And only 5 per cent of people on ESA per year are moving into work, compared with 25 per cent under previous scheme.

Labour was right to break ranks with Lord Freud this week after he exposed the contempt with which he views disabled people’s value in the labour market. Now it must prove it really has changed its spots since the days of hiring him as welfare reform adviser under Tony Blair.

Will the disability employment gap still be framed around Freud’s paternalistic mantra of ‘welfare dependency’, with no solutions but the stick of sanctions? Or will Labour’s policies involve us as active subjects with the same ambitions and aspirations as everyone else?

Some of Labour’s proposals last week are welcome. Replacing the centralised Work Programme with local partnerships between Jobcentres, local authorities and businesses makes sense because the most successful Supported Employment schemes for disabled people are already locally commissioned and are being squeezed out by the failing Work Programme.

The proposed expansion of the Disability Employment Adviser role in Jobcentres is good because getting disabled people into work requires knowledge and training, not the one-size-fits-all approach of welfare-to-work.

But the main strategy, a new specialist employment support scheme for disabled people called Work Support, is so far unconvincing. Apart from a new name, it appears based on the same concept as its failed predecessors – (Pathways to Work, Work Step, Work Choice) – a personal adviser programme outsourced to private providers who are paid by results.

Success will depend on what new solutions and strategies these advisers have at their disposal. But thus far, relying on Freud’s beloved markets or tinkering with payment structures to spur innovation has flopped. So it’s time to listen to what support disabled people actually want.

I hope my research, in association with Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform, involving over 500 people in the target group for disability employment policy should make the listening part easy. We asked what people’s barriers to work were, what their experience of employment support via Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme was, and how their aims and aspirations could be better fulfilled by different solutions to the ones on offer.

What support do disabled people want?

The most popular measure, at 54 per cent, was a package of support agreed upfront while looking for work so they could reassure an employer that they could do the job. The kinds of support that would level the playing field and enable to compete fairly for jobs: special equipment and adaptations, accessible transport or personal assistance.

This kind of package already exists within the DWP by the name of Access to Work. The scheme pays for adjustments over and above those reasonable for an employer to make. It is popular with disabled people and cost effective to the Treasury. However, infuriatingly, you can only apply for it once you have a job so it is of no help to people looking for work because they won’t know what help they could get.

What good will a Work Support adviser be if they can’t broker an Access to Work package between disabled jobseekers and potential employers? This solution won’t come from the market, but from that rare commodity: joined up thinking within the DWP.

Next up, 50 per cent of people wanted help with paying for further education or training to give them better job prospects. Many people who were prevented from doing their previous job by accident or injury wanted to retrain in a new career. But the current system excludes funding for study beyond GSCE level so private providers have their hands tied.

What will be the point of regular mandatory meetings with a Work Support adviser if no funding is available for re-qualifying for a suitable job? Instead of paying private providers to go through the motions, Work Support needs to be flexible enough to allow disabled people to put their resource allocation towards further study or training if this is what will improve their job prospects.

These are just some of the measures which could bring a disabled person closer to a job. But when these avenues are exhausted, the job, as it were, needs to come closer to the person. All previous research concludes getting more disabled people into work will only happen with changes in the labour market. The nature and conditions of jobs must include more disabled people.

And here’s where it would help Labour to understand who makes up its target group of disabled people on incapacity benefits. Our survey respondents on ESA were by and large people with mental health conditions and/or chronic illness. The vast majority say they are prevented from doing a regular job by pain, fatigue, sickness, social anxiety, depression and most especially, from the unpredictably variability of their health from day to day. Yet 85 per cent believe that employers could, or may be able to, make use of their skills if they adapted the kinds of job on offer.

The kinds of working conditions people needed were not far-fetched: 64 per cent wanted flexible working times, with annualised, instead of weekly contracted hours; 62 per cent said working from home; 58 per cent said a more positive attitude towards employing disabled people and 44 per cent said working less than 16 hours per week.

Will Work Support have the power and the vision to work with employers to create these kinds of jobs for the vast majority of people on ESA who need them? Or genuinely help people to become self-employed? It is a tall order but the disability employment problem will remain intractable unless it does.

Catherine Hale is an independent researcher and campaigner on disability and social security policy and a member of the Spartacus Network. She also blogs

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