Government’s proposals to “halve the disability employment gap” raise more questions than answers.

There are only just a few more days to respond to the Government’s Green Paper which is all about supporting many more disabled people to work  My comments have just gone in and the core questions concerning me are:

  1. Is there sufficient long-term cross-Government political will, financial commitment and official capacity to make all of this a reality?
  2. Are disabled people themselves sufficiently embedded in the design, delivery, commissioning and governance of all this change?
  3. Have success and the risks of failure been measured more realistically?
  4. Has the high level of antipathy and mistrust been sufficiently calibrated?
  5. Should employment support force the reluctant rather than welcome the willing?
  6. Will employers’ attitudes be changed?
  7. Are successful employment support programmes described?
  8. Does local partnership delivery feature strongly?
  9. Is self-employment getting enough attention?
  10. Is the health sector ready, willing and able to contribute?
  11. Is the evidence, data, information and resources available to all?
  12. Is this strategy going in the right direction?

To every question, the answer is a resounding “No, not yet!”  While the minds that put all of this together are willing, the body of proposals and solutions are not.

You can see my thinking about each of these questions here  You might agree or not but tell the Government what you think of their proposals – deadline is 17 February 2017 to

Happy reading!

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

You Tube

“Improving lives – work, health and disability”

What do you think:

  • Got some good ideas about reducing the personal and benefit costs by helping more disabled people to work?
  • Is more power for Jobcentre work coaches, doctors and others in the health service good or worrying?
  • Is this a joined-up strategy or a collection of good ideas?

I strongly commend the Government’s recent “Improving Lives – The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper”:

It is all about changing attitudes and resolving the injustice that stops us disabled people fulfilling our potential.  They are seeking your ideas, experience and evidence as they try to shape a way to get one million disabled people in to work over ten years of reform.

The paper is good in clearly drawing on the knowledge of many of us active at the front-line of disability employment: none of it is rocket science.  But there is quite a lot of “motherhood and apple pie” ideas with which few would argue but not enough hard, practical detail that would make those ideas work in reality.

And there are some elements that send a shiver down the spine such as:

  • Giving Jobcentre coaches “discretion to make case-by-case decisions about the type of employment support a person is able to engage with” (para 132).  If this is linked with conditionality, sanctions and without any formal appeal process, there’s risk that clients could be in real jeopardy.
  • The almost complete dismissal of self-employment (para 97)is staggering when we know that working disabled people are more likely to follow this option than their non-disabled peers – and the performance of the New Enterprise allowance falls far short of what could be expected for disabled people.
  • The weak section aimed at improving employer’s willingness to take on and retain disabled people.  There’s still too much emphasis on large employers without properly targeting the sectors where disabled people may have more realistic job prospects. But they do float the idea of mandatory contact between employers and sick employees plus action to help their return – there’s good mileage here (para 200).
  • Chapter 5 on increasing NHS support is probably wildly optimistic when all the headlines are about under-funding.  And clinicians need to acquire a whole new set of knowledge: their great on medical conditions but pretty poor on understanding the real-life consequences that are disabling.
  • Not enough mention of disabled people themselves being part of the governance of all these new ideas.


Overall, the paper is rather like a Dalmatian: lots of attractive spots but not well-joined up!

Don’t be shy – have your say too – the closing date for comments is 17 February 2017.

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Making Tax Digital may not make it easier for everyone.

What do you think:

  • Doing tax returns on line is a breeze?
  • No need to worry because your accountant does it all?
  • Perhaps you might need to tell HMRC if digital tax is going to be difficult?


Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is planning a new approach that should end all that form filling each year to tell them about what you’ve earned, received in interest and other income so that your tax can be worked out.    By getting regular information from employers, banks and building societies, they will have lots of the information already so that you just need to add anything extra – and all this will be possible through a computer or smart phone – meaning that you can see at any time what you might need to pay in tax.  Self-employed people and businesses will also have a better and up-to-date idea of their tax situation by sending HMRC regular information and getting their own tax forecasts –again, all possible on-line.

You can read about their proposals in a series of consultation documents.  I recommend “Better use of information” for anyone and “Simplifying tax for unincorporated businesses” and “Bringing business tax in to the digital age” for those running their own businesses –they give examples of how the new system will work. There are other documents too for those who want to look at more detail.

But sending and getting financial and tax information on-line may not suit everyone – especially if using computers or smart phones is difficult because of a disability or other circumstances so it is worth checking out their proposals and telling HMRC what you like and what you don’t.  You can send comments to them until 7 November 2016 by e-mailing:

Below are the comments I have sent in – if you are short of time, feel free to use any of this in your own response.

Overview:  The concept of MTD has many merits but the paucity of equality (and especially disability) considerations places the initiative at risk.  It is not clear how current proposals and potential law will satisfy the judgement in Bishop & Others v HMRC Commissioners [2013] 522 UKFTT).  If these changes don’t work for “ordinary working class people”, the Department will undermine the Prime Minister’s statements and, probably more importantly, fail to produce the increased tax, lower costs and public endorsement needed.

The following comments relate to the principles of five of the 6 MTD consultation documents (plus some comments on delivery detail).

  1. Better use of information.

Principles.  It is very surprising that HMRC has already concluded that MTD will not have “a significant or disproportionate impact” on people with protected characteristics when the Department has neither undertaken an equality impact assessment nor specifically asked questions about such in any of the consultation papers.

The stated percentage of people with access to digital tools is without reference to the source data or context and appears, wholly erroneously, to be linked with whether customers are digitally excluded.  While the MTD principles are sound, they are substantially undermined by the lack of data and detail about those customers who will encounter most difficulties (for whatever reason) in adopting MTD.  In this post-Brexit fragile economy, giving high priority to those most likely to be disadvantaged is likely to improve the system for all and make better political, social and economic sense.

While increasing numbers of people have access to digital devices, many avoid using such in relation to their finances due to the very high level of on-line fraud.  HMRC needs to present a stronger description of the security measures before such is convincing.  Likewise, personal security of passwords and security codes is increasingly risky as people now have so many – security alternatives or guidance on secure storage using IT should be available.  Ideally, customers should have one code for all interactions with Government.

Delivery detail.  Frequent system-generated prompts have a high risk of being ignored by customers who have to separately find and enter passwords/security codes just to discover information of little value/action. Customers should be able to switch off prompts except those requiring action to comply with the law but with options to receive prompts that are to their benefit, for information etc.  Many will not want any contact unless something has gone wrong.

Third party information (including that from other Government Departments) should always include specific account details and payment dates, percentages attributable to joint account holders and should be in the standard format contained in their own Equality Act-compliant notifications to customers to facilitate checking by those customers.  Employees should be able to confirm that current NI is being paid by their employers.

Obviously MTD requires testing with various adaptive soft and hard ware of varying vintages across the full spectrum of broadband speeds.  On-line instructions and guidance should be capable of downloading in various formats (e.g. large print from a Word document) for ease of referral.  Use of on-line links and text boxes can be difficult with some adaptive software.  For some people, transferring a security code to a screen text box will be very difficult – the option to receive via e-mail should be available.  Digital tax account displays should be very simple and accessible with all types of adaptive software.

HMRC must also utilise the same short-cut key strokes as Microsoft e.g. Control P to print – otherwise, they would be requiring those using such with adaptive software to learn yet another keyboard “language”.

  1. Simplifying tax for uninc businesses.

Universal Credit (UC) is mentioned in this document (and elsewhere) but full implementation  may be subject to further delays hence MTD should take account of interactions with Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit, ESA “permitted work”, New Enterprise Allowance, potentially Access To Work and possibly other benefits/payments.  The proposals would be significantly strengthened by DWP and HMRC commitments regarding payment reporting and timescales both before and after full UC implementation – again, giving high priority to those most likely to be disadvantaged.

  1. Simplified cash basis for uninc property business.

(Not read)

  1. Bringing business tax in to the digital age.

With self-employment at an historic high  plus the post-BREXIT economic uncertainty and recession risk, considerable care is needed to avoid many small businesses (regardless of legal status) failing due to the pressures of MTD – and so increasing the numbers of unemployed/benefit claimants.    If MTD becomes just too difficult and/or too expensive, people may just give up – creating unacceptable political, social and economic risk.

Consequently, every aspect of MTD introduction should be tested at the level of the most vulnerable businesses – rather than the scenarios currently used.

Many of these businesses will barely use IT for business, may need to purchase new hard and software and, most importantly, learn how to use it.  This represents burdens in time, cost and business owners’ confidence and commitment.  The proposals in this area are not yet sufficiently developed with cross-Departmental input.  For example, there is no mention of how all New Enterprise Allowance providers (or similar other projects) will be required to deliver MTD training, how Access To Work funded support workers will be upskilled or on how other agencies (local Councils, Skills Funding Agency and more) will support the implementation.

HMRC can obviously identify those self-employed and other businesses that currently have no or very limited IT interactions   with the Department but it is not clear how this consultation or any concept testing has been undertaken directly with such customers.  This would also provide a more meaningful assessment as to whether the proposed £10K threshold for mandatory MTD is meaningful and realistic, how it relates to WTC, Housing Benefit, UC, personal tax allowances and how it will be automatically adjusted in line with the wider economy.  Direct concept testing with the most vulnerable would also amplify the “other reasons” justifying MTD exemption.

Recognising the Government’s goal of halving the disability employment gap and that working disabled people are more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled peers, there is little evidence that their needs have been sufficiently addressed.  It is not evident that Government has been successful in achieving compliance with the Equality Act regarding reasonable adjustments, accessibility or information available in alternate formats across either its own digital products or the external software developers with which it works.  This tends to undermine any suggestions that systems will be fully inclusive for those with additional needs –whether due to low literacy, numeracy or IT skills or reliance on adaptive technology.

Overall, it is disappointing that HMRC does not report what evidence it holds showing that MTD will have no significant or disproportionate impact on customers with Equality Act characteristics.  Proliferation of SMART phone ownership is surely not a convincing basis upon which to rely upon in gauging those owners’ ability to use such for MTD?

  1. Tax administration.

Setting aside the issues of deliberate cheating or aggressive tax avoidance, it might be expected that an aim of MTD to reduce the levels of non-compliance, errors, late submissions/payments etc. would be supported by evidence of current performance and goals set for improvement.  These would seem to be basic measures for assessing the value of introducing MTD and its long-term effectiveness.

Additionally, compliance data relevant to different groups of individuals (for example, by protected characteristics) and/or types/sizes of businesses plus current means of filing would demonstrate HMRC Equality Act duties while highlighting risk areas for non-compliance by volume, value and such characteristics.

This would then assist MTD design to mitigate risk and improve performance.

  1. Voluntary payment.

The business finance rationale of voluntary tax payments far in advance of their due date requires strengthening if reductions in working capital, loss of interest and demonstrable assets is to be justified.  For those with most need to budget for their tax, there is a risk that such payments could become analogous to pre-payment utility meters with the associated adverse publicity

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Voluntary work opens doors to employment.

What do you think:

  • Got unpaid Trustees, Governors, Board members, Non-Execs, advisers, committee members?
  • Got anyone who gives their time for free in any role?
  • Do at least 20% of them have long-term health conditions/disabilities to match the real world?

They say that 8 out of 10 jobs are filled due to networking rather than advertising.  But, if you are stuck at home on benefits, making those contacts and connections can be difficult.

Doing some voluntary work was absolutely the foundation of my being able to work after leaving the Navy: doing the admin for the county’s Prince’s Trust committee, helping organise the local community group, diversity trainers’ workshops and a back-to-work partnership.  All these contacts, references, know-how and experience helped me get paid work for over 15 years.

Signing up to the Disability Volunteer Charter isn’t onerous or difficult – but it could mean that thousands of organisations welcome more disabled volunteers like me: opening up a life of opportunities and getting another pair of willing hands too – everyone benefits.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Disability cycle across generations.


What do you think:

 Evidence that poverty breeds mental ill-health.

  • Correlation between poverty/low income and poor mental health amongst children.
  • Are health services sufficiently targeted to reduce the disabling effect of poverty?

A recent report suggests that: “The prevalence of severe mental health problems in children is strongly related to parental education, parental occupation and family income. For example, 17% of 11-yearolds from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution were identified as having severe mental health problems in 2012, compared with only 4% among those from families in the top fifth.”     Although the causal links are not yet fully identified, this all suggests that the links between poverty and disability might be self-perpetuating from one generation to another.

Disabled people are more likely to be in that bottom fifth of the income distribution as they are less likely to be working/more dependent on benefits and, if they do work, are more likely to be in low-paid, part-time and short-term jobs.  Now it seems that mental health conditions will be more prevalent amongst their children – and there are doubtless other factors linked with low income that will be impacting on other aspects of those children’s future health prospects.

All of this reinforces the need for both health and employment support services to be better targeted at areas of high deprivation.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Impact of disability benefit reforms.

What do you think?

Tougher eligibility and lower value disability benefits reducing demand by “baby boomers”?

Low education linked to high disability benefit claims and less chance of working again?

Mental health and behavioural conditions increasing or just being better recognised?

If you are like me and just a bit of a geek about disability benefits, this paper is just up your street.

It talks about how disability benefits were growing as a proportion of the national income from the 1950s to nearly quadruple in the 1990s.  Reform in the mid 90s and the following decade has produced major reductions so that the forecast of expenditure in 20017/18 will be back to 1960s levels.  But the number of people receiving benefits hasn’t reduced anything like so dramatically.

Over this long period, we need to recognise that other factors are influencing the level of demand such as:

  • The recession and gradual economic recovery.
  • Transition from manufacturing to more service-based economy.
  • An ageing population (increasing propensity for disability).
  • More women in the workforce.
  • The relative value of benefits reducing in relation to average income and the sanctions regime dissuading many from continuing claims.

While there have been reductions in the claim rates of older men and women, those rates relate to the larger numbers within the “baby-boomer” population meaning that the overall numbers of disability benefit claimants has reduced little (about 2.3m in 2013)  .  Essentially, the reforms anticipated the baby-boomer demand and managed to slightly reduce claimant numbers with new eligibility tests and some displacement to other benefits while cutting the relative value of the benefits to reduce cost/render less attractive to higher earners.

Factors for employment support providers.

  • More mental health and behavioural conditions.  “Among both men and women there is systematic growth in the proportion of claimants in any age group with mental and behavioural disorders as their principal health condition.”  And this higher rate is marked amongst young people.  However, I think we have to be careful not to jump to the conclusion that this shows a real increase in these conditions: many were doubtless “hidden” and/or undiagnosed while the WCA was also notoriously poor in acknowledging such conditions.  But these increases also mean that providers of employment support, the health sector, employers and others need better strategies and delivery to make work a viable prospect –especially amongst the young.  Hopefully, more Government focus on mental health will be a start.
  • Improve skills.  People with lower education are about four times more likely to claim disability benefits than those with higher education:  they probably had lower skills, lower pay, riskier jobs and lifestyles.  It seems that they are more likely to gain health conditions whereupon disability benefits have higher relative value in contrast to those with high skills and better paid jobs.  They probably have fewer transferrable skills meaning that adapting and returning to different work is more difficult so they are likely to claim for longer periods.  Employment support providers need to find ways of upgrading/updating skills to make sustainable jobs a possibility.
  • Earlier interventions.  On the policy front, the correlation between older age, low skills, more health conditions and disability benefits is important:   benefits need to be well-targeted on those with most needs (which may not result from the number of conditions but the severity of consequences from even a single condition).  With the ageing population and later eligibility for retirement pensions, the potential disability benefit costs look high – the cost-effectiveness of earlier interventions to improve health and skills in work need calculating.

Snapshot of disability benefit reforms.

  • 1970s. Invalidity Benefit at a rate of about 25% of average earnings and the “Suitable Work” test.
  • 1995.  Reformed to Incapacity Benefit with the “All Work” test requiring claimants to be considered in relation to any work, regardless of their previous occupation/skills etc and medical assessment by individuals’ GPs replaced by external agencies.  Claimant numbers fell when continuation of disability benefits after retirement age stopped – but overall expenditure probably differed little as these individuals would have received their State pensions instead.  The Pathways to Work scheme had some success in providing support and financial incentives to encourage recent claimants to get back to work.
  • 2008.  Reformed to Employment and Support Allowance but at a rate of about 15% of average earnings (primarily as earning levels had increased but the benefits had not).  A stricter medical Work Capability Assessment divides claimants in to the Work-Related Activity and Support Groups – subject to much criticism (especially around mental health conditions) and some consequent change.    The mandatory Pathways provision continued and voluntary participation in the Work Choice programme offered.  IB claimants were progressively transferred to ESA from 2010, starting with the most recent claimants so that those changing in late 2014 were those furthest from work.

“Disability benefits”, of course, don’t give the whole picture: it has been estimated that some 25% of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance after “failing” the WCA are disabled people according to the Equality Act 2010 definition.  Many will have been deemed capable of work (despite substantial impairments) if supported in work through the Access to Work scheme (which itself has been much criticised as under-performing).  Hence, one should not ignore all these JSA claimants when looking at disability benefits – many will have as much difficulty in getting jobs as those on ESA.

“It seems clear that in the absence of the various reforms discussed here, the number receiving disability benefits in the United Kingdom—and the amount spent publicly on them— would have ended up being substantially higher. But the changes in receipt of disability benefits are far from uniform across divisions of age, sex, education, and health.”

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Official data confirms disability as top discrimination issue.

What do you think:

  • Do disabled people complain most or do we have more to complain about?
  • Disability discrimination causes most calls on Government service.
  • Work is top disability discrimination issue.

Recent data from the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) shows that a massive proportion of all their calls in August (not far off two thirds) related to discrimination concerns for people with long-term health conditions/disabilities.

This isn’t just a flash in the pan but matches trends reported by EASS at their conference earlier in the year: UK wide, disability issues were at 62% across 12 months’ data – at a level of about four times that of race (15%) and eight times that of sex (8%).  (See the year’s data here and search Conference Word)

So disability issues are by far the biggest cause of discrimination concerns within which   work accounts for 55%, followed by Services and public functions at 26% – it is not all about lifts and ramps (premises were only 4%!)

With disabled people being only about 20% of the population, this level of contact with EASS is too disproportionately high to be ignored. There are doubtless some individuals and organisations making full use of the Service but other groups concerned with race, sex etc are likely to be similarly active.  Population proportions aren’t the explanation either as the level of disabled people is not even twice that of black and ethnic minorities (let alone four times) while sex or gender is close to 50:50.

Instead, the data shows that the Service is primarily dealing with disability discrimination and mainly issues to do with employment.  If we want to reduce the numbers claiming sickness benefits, tackling such high levels of workplace discrimination is worth every penny.  Hopefully the House of Lords Select Committee’s review of Equality Act enforcement will add some much-needed muscle.

The EaSS can help resolve concerns informally, including writing to the organisation in issue.  Contact them:

Telephone 0808 800 0082

Textphone 0808 800 0084

Email via website

Post to FREEPOST Equality Advisory Support Service FPN4431

Webchat Available via website

BSL provided through partner Royal Association for Deaf People. More information on homepage.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000