Today the Government has published proposals showing how it intends to improve the way it supports disabled people to find, stay in and progress work.
Work is a huge issue for disabled people. Only one in two disabled people currently have a job. Disabled young people are twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET). And if the same proportion of disabled people were in work as the wider population, there would be 2 million more people in the workforce.
But how well does the new strategy address the challenges disabled people face? Will it create the personalised support disabled people need?
What are the challenges for disabled people?
Many disabled people want to work – but find the labour market a daunting place. Many report that employers see them as too ‘risky’, often making assumptions about what they can and can’t do.
During recruitment, disabled people feel like having an impairment can automatically ‘discount’ them from jobs even when they are qualified to apply.
Disabled people looking for work also rely on having a wide range of other support services in place which can be very difficult and bureaucratic to co-ordinate, typically including housing, social care, welfare advice and other support such as childcare.
So it’s vital that there is joined-up, specialist support available for disabled people. But as Scope’s recent report found, disabled people too often report that the support they receive to find and progress in work is just not up to scratch.
The Work Capability Assessment – which tests whether or not someone is fit for work – still hasn’t been sorted out. 90,000 disabled people have had their benefits suspended for things like missing interviews at Jobcentre Plus. And only 1 in 20 disabled people have been supported to get a job through the Work Programme.
So it’s really welcome that the Government are trying to find ways to improve the system. But the challenge is that today’s proposals risk creating a tale of two systems – of high quality support for the few, and a one size fits all approach for everyone else.
High quality support for the few
The good news is that the Government recognises the need to make improvements, and have put forward a number of new proposals.
Some are really welcome. They propose creating a new ‘gateway’ to support, so that disabled people can get the right support at the right time. This is something Scope has called for before and that has been endorsed by the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
There’s also a focus on who delivers employment support, with more emphasis on specialist and smaller providers like Disabled People’s Organisations. This is good news, as many – such as the Essex Coalition of Disabled People – are doing excellent work and can offer a unique perspective on employment issues.
There’s also a welcome focus on the need for better evidence about the kind of support disabled people feel is useful, and how it can be best be delivered.
One size fits all for everyone else
The problem is that even if these proposals are enough to create a genuinely personalised specialist support offer, the chances are that too few disabled people will benefit.
The details of exactly who’s in or out of the specialist system are yet to be worked out, but the strategy is clear that the majority of disabled people will only receive employment support through the mainstream offer – primarily the Work Programme.
This is worrying. Despite some improvements it’s pretty widely accepted that the Work Programme is still a long way from being effective for most disabled people. We know that only 3.16% of the combined ESA groups found work, and a number of commentaries show that too often disabled people are being left without the right kind of support.
Although the strategy does contain some proposals for mainstream support such as introducing ‘ESA Champions’ in Jobcentres, it’s hard to see these delivering the step-change in personalised support the mainstream offer needs.
The strategy also makes clear that there is only very limited money available, which is ultimately what’s placing the limits on access to specialist support.
The Chancellor announced in the Budget that £350 million is available for disability employment and the Department is clearly still grappling with how to spend this money. But the indicators are that it is likely to be through greater rationing of specialist support and placing as many people as possible into the generic programmes.
So although today’s strategy is welcome, there’s a real danger that we end up having a tale of two systems: effective, holistic support for a small number of disabled people with high support needs; and patchy, heavily-conditional mainstream support for the rest.
As the Government starts to think about how they will deliver the proposals, it’s vital that they work to ensure that as many disabled people as possible receive personalised, specialist support.