Letter to Damian Green at DWP.

Dear Damian,

Congratulations on your new role as Secretary of State in charge of a Department that can change so many lives for the better – and is going to be at the forefront of the Conservative’s inclusive and compassionate agenda.  Here are some different perspectives to that massive pile of briefing notes you are ploughing through!

What do you think:

  • Has the Department been making the most of disabled people’s desire to get back to work?
  • Do you need support from other Departments to halve the disability employment gap?

Is the new Work and Health Programme going to be radical enough?

The recent Work Foundation paper on halving the gap rather pulls the punches.

It doesn’t quite make the point that, to have fewer unemployed disabled people in the future, it makes sense to consider those currently working despite long-term health conditions/disabilities and stop them dropping out of their jobs.  This would suggest targeting health interventions at:

  • those with more than one such condition (likely to be amongst the growing band of older workers aged 45+)
  • those conditions posing most risk to continued employment and
  • those conditions that could be most likely to present re-employment barriers if current jobs are lost (such as mental ill-health).

Surely this is a simple matter of crunching the numbers and the cross-Departmental costs of such interventionist treatment v benefits/lost tax and productivity/further treatment for other unemployment-caused conditions etc?

They do recognise that lots of people with long-term health conditions and disabilities want to work.  They suggest perhaps 50% of those with mental health conditions as an example – this sort of level has been the pan-disability rule of thumb for many years. The impact of such desire to work can be powerful – they cite the success rates of the Work Choice programme which, despite its recognised tendency to “cream and park”, could have been even more impressive if work under 16 hours per week had been counted (one has to start somewhere).  But they don’t quite explain how such desire can be sustained in the face of unsuccessful employment support or Jobcentres actively shedding disability expertise and assuming a policing role.  If you’d previously been on Incapacity Benefit, would you go anywhere near a programme that offers nearly 90% chance of failure, doesn’t understand your situation and could impose sanctions that further damage your health?  All of this goes to the very heart of future employment support that needs to make the most of the willing so that the hearts and minds of the more reluctant will follow.

Significantly, the paper concentrates on what employment support is available/successful without tackling the continuing high-levels of prejudice and discrimination prevalent amongst the largest group of employers (see the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on businesses employing under 250 people – January 2016).    And, of course, inadequate funding, poor promotion and arbitrary decision making on Access To Work support hardly breeds employer confidence.  So our horses are already thirsting to work but the trough is pretty dry!  Its going to take something much more wide-ranging and innovative than the “Disability Confident” initiative to resolve.

The paper utterly ignores self-employment and the poor showing of New Enterprise Allowance.  The NEA success rate for disabled people should be significantly higher when taking in to account:

  • Disabled people make up the large majority of claimants eligible for NEA.
  • Self-employment is at a historic high.
  • Disabled people who work are more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled peers.

This whole work option seems to have been side-lined for those who may use it most.  Complete re-design of NEA is probably needed but, in the short term, contract managers should be checking on how well providers are complying with equality legislation.

The Work Foundation recommendation of closer links between DWP/Jobcentres and NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups and business-led Local Economic Partnerships seems eminently sensible.  But only until one considers that Jobcentres have no great success record with disabled people and is actively reducing specialist support, the NHS doesn’t see work as a health outcome and LEPs are driven by business growth.  There would need to be a radical shift in their respective priorities and, most importantly, their engagement, knowledge, understanding and capacity to undertake such roles – none of which is currently readily apparent.  So possible but only with really strong political direction.

The paper recognises many of the shortfalls of current policy but probably needs to be more radical – isn’t it time to strike out those processes and provision that actively undermine success?  What is the point of the costly Work Capability Assessment – it’s effectiveness and credibility is eroded by the huge appeal rate, it doesn’t take account of other key employability factors and it dissuades people from engaging with the system.  There must be better ways of identifying those for whom any form of work is never going to be a realistic prospect (if such is needed in the first place).   Likewise, the concept of large contracts with multiple tiers of sub-contracting not only puts huge distance between the living, breathing human beings and contractors’ decision-makers but tends to force out the small, specialist and local providers that can better engage and support those furthest from work.  And perhaps DWP itself would be more successful in managing contracts on a smaller scale too?

Future employment support should exploit the innate desire to get back to work through smaller, local and more manageable contracts that integrate specialist provision; consistent data and evaluation of skills, work, health and social inclusion outcomes could realise cross-Departmental support and benefits (and achieve Departments’ social value goals and equality objectives – everyone gains).

There are lots of us with good practical experience in this field and who share your goals.  Please use us as you design the policies and processes to make your tenure an outstanding success.  Good luck!

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000