Rebuilding the system won't cut it, says mental health policy advisor Tom Pollard
Labour’s consultation on ‘Rebuilding a Just Social Security System’ came to a close on Sunday. This is an area of policy that always forms a central plank of any party’s programme for Government, and it will be vital for Labour to develop some ‘big ideas’ in this space if it is to offer a truly transformative vision at the assumed-to-be-looming general election.
I’ve worked on issues around welfare reform (with a particular focus on people with mental health problems) for most of the last ten years, including 18 months inside the Department for Work and Pensions on secondment as an expert adviser. Earlier this year, I wrote a paper for Demos about my experience in the department, and the conclusion I came to was that it was institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms necessary to effectively support the millions of people who are out of work because of complex personal circumstances, such as disabilities or health problems.
The only way these fundamental barriers will be overcome is through bold and radical political leadership and, as a Labour member, I hope the party will provide this when they find their way into Government. I’m sharing my response to their consultation to try to help stimulate the debate that is needed to inform and drive forward the thinking the party will need to do in advance of assuming office.
I believe the failure of previous attempts to improve outcomes for ill and disabled people, and ‘harder-to-help’ groups more widely, is in large part due to a lack of understanding and discussion about the type of underlying issues I highlighted in my Demos paper. This has led to policy-making that doesn’t really question the parameters of the current system and ends up simply reproducing the same flawed approaches in slightly different formats.
When it comes to supporting people with more complex circumstances and needs, progress can only be made if someone is genuinely engaged with the support on offer. You can’t shortcut this process, as the DWP tries to, through the threat of sanctions – that’s not engagement, it’s compliance. The DWP is hard-wired to see people first and foremost as ‘benefit claimants’, with the huge power-imbalance that implies. This, along with the lack of trust in the DWP (as Demos research has demonstrated), means that it is simply unable to build the types of relationships needed to engage ‘harder-to-help’ groups.
That’s why I have argued for DWP to no longer ‘own’ responsibility for these groups. Instead, local authorities, health services and third sector organisations, who are far better placed to build the right kind of relationships with people, should be supported to create and expand their own provision (making use of the principles and approaches emerging from work such as NLGN’s ‘Community Paradigm’ report). Where they are able to support people with more complex needs into employment, these bodies should see a share of the savings accrued by DWP and the Treasury. The individuals concerned should be freed from the coercion of the DWP regime, in recognition that it is complex circumstances, not moral failure, that is holding them back. This approach could fit well with the type of UBI pilots proposed for Sheffield.
These are the sort of ‘big ideas’ I want to see Labour embrace, and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations I’ve had with people within the party. What we need now is a big and open debate about what a fundamentally different approach to these issues could look like, to give Labour both the content and the confidence to not just ‘rebuild’ social security, but revolutionise it.
Tom Pollard has worked on mental health social policy in Parliament on behalf of Mind for the last ten years. Now, he is training as a mental health social worker.
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