Matthew Oakley is a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation.
Benefit sanctions can work. But for disabled people, they can do more harm than good. So if the Government is serious about the commit to halving the disability employment gap that it made in the Conservative Manifesto and has reaffirmed since, it needs to try something new.
The last two decades of employment and welfare policy have seen the conditions placed on claimants in return for their benefit increased dramatically.
Jobseekers are now expected to engage full time in jobsearch, often attend Jobcentres weekly – or even daily – and a range of schemes that require work in return for benefit have been tested. This “conditionality” has been shown to work and I have been (and remain) a strong advocate of many of the changes in recent years. There is no doubt that they have contributed to both the low unemployment rate we now see and wider economic growth in the UK.
However, it has not worked for everyone. Just 44 per cent of disabled people are in work and analysis published yesterday by the Social Market Foundation shows that just eight per cent of workless disabled people find employment each year. Worse still, after a prolonged period of changes to benefits, changes to assessments and increased conditionality, the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people is the same as it was 15 years ago.
Assessment processes are long, hated and regularly successfully contested (around a third of “fit for work” decisions are appealed and about half are overturned); benefit levels leave significant numbers of disabled families struggling to get by (around one in three disabled people live in relative income poverty); and anecdotal evidence of the impact of sanctions on the mental and physical health of those who we have already assessed as being unable to work immediately, is extremely concerning. The system has not even saved money: costs continue to grow.
In short, the system of support and benefits for disabled people just does not work. When you look at it, this should come as no surprise. It is based around the same principles as the system for jobseekers: cajoling and prompting job search, minimising the costs of intervention and parking those deemed too hard to help. In doing so, it completely misunderstands the situation facing the people who rely on the system.
I recently spoke with two groups of disabled people facing these issues. Their barriers to employment were not their motivation or desire to engage in a day’s work. Instead they were the frustrations of a benefits system that vilifies them; jobcentre support that ignores them; and businesses that, generally, look at the costs of adapting working practices rather than the significant value that disabled workers bring. Tackling these issues will clearly take more than just constantly wielding the conditionality stick.
The Government has indicated that it understands these issues. It has committed to an ambition of halving the disability employment gap and we are awaiting a White Paper that will set out the next steps of reform. This is a major opportunity for the Government to show that the system is broken and that, to achieve its ambition, it is brave enough to change the approach of the last 20-years. It should give up on a system that has been shown to have failed disabled people: drop the conditionality and sanctions regime that can do more harm than good; significantly increase the support available for those who want to work; and compensate those who choose try to get back to work with a steps-to-work wage.
Doing so be would be unpopular with many on the Right. But it would recognise that this is a group that needs help, not hassle, and that providing this would not undermine the requirements in other parts of the benefits system but promote the principles of fairness and personal responsibility that have been at the heart of the Government’s agenda. Overall it would be a first step towards creating a system that both properly supports disabled people and could help to halve the disability employment gap.