Government Green Paper is welcome – but after a decade of reforms we need to get this right

3 November 2016

 “Preventing people from falling out of work because of ill health is always better than having to pick up the pieces afterwards. So we want to support people at every stage – from out of work to in work, from receiving treatment to self-managing a condition – to ensure they get the appropriate help and advice.”

“In this Paper, we set out a range of proposals to further improve our employment support, both for disabled people and for people with health conditions who do not consider themselves to be disabled. This will be followed next year by a further paper, setting out our delivery plan.”

“The measures we propose – improvements to workplace health, reform of the gateway, increased support for claimants and removing the perverse incentives in the system, should, over time, significantly reduce the number of people claiming incapacity benefits. … [If] the Government, employers, local authorities and health professionals come together to tackle this challenge, we should aspire to reduce the number of incapacity benefits claimants by 1 million over the course of a decade.”

The Government’s Green Paper sets bold ambitions for employment reform for disabled people and those with health conditions.  But none of the three statements above were made this week – they came from ‘The disability and health employment strategy: the discussion so far’ in 2013, the government’s response to the 2011 review of sickness absence by Dame Carol Black and David Frost, and Labour’s ‘A New Deal for welfare’ White Paper way back in 2006.

Back then, the difference between the employment rates of disabled people and non-disabled people was 31%.  Today, it stands at 32%.  Needless to say, we didn’t reduce by one million the numbers claiming incapacity benefits (down by 180,000), nor did the Coalition publish its ‘delivery plan’ in 2014.  And as we’ve said before, the government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap – which has gone from being a manifesto commitment for this Parliament to “a programme of work for the next ten years”, will on current trends take more than 200 years to achieve.

So in truth, successive governments have willed the ends but not the means on disability employment.  The issues are too big for any one Department or one Parliament – transforming attitudes, employer behaviour, employment support, the benefits system, and how public services work.  And in each of those five areas we are long on ideas but short on evidence, political will and money.

But while it can feel like we’ve at best trod water for the last decade (not fully implementing the Black/ Frost review nor building on the momentum from the 2013 Strategy), and in some areas we’ve made things worse (time-limiting contributory Employment and Support Allowance, botching the Personal Independence Payment, halving funding for disability employment programmes), Monday’s Green Paper should be welcomed – for five reasons.

First, it recognises that this isn’t just about the benefit system, work incentives and employment support.  While it does read like DWP has written five chapters and the Department of Health one, it sets out the right challenges and good proposals across each of the five issues above.  The government is right to say that this can’t be fixed overnight and is right to consult openly and transparently on its approach.

Secondly, it begins to sketch out what could be a far better system of support – with a ‘Health and Work Conversation’ for new ESA claimants (who currently have to wait up to three months before seeing an adviser); more than doubling the number of Disability Employment Advisers (which were under threat of abolition) and refocusing them towards providing professional expertise and support to work coaches; and plans for 200 new Community Partners – drawn from disability charities and providing critical links into local networks and provision.  It also acknowledges – for the first time – the 1.5 million people placed in the ‘Support Group’ of ESA and who receive no employment support at all.  

Thirdly, the paper hints at some of the deep dysfunction in how public services often work together in supporting disabled people – particularly within and between health, employment, benefits and social services.  Critically, in the new joint Work and Health Unit and in the leadership of the NHS and DWP, we may have the beginnings of the architecture needed to address this.

Fourthly, it recognises the central role that employers play – in their practices, awareness, attitudes and decisions.  The paper talks about campaigns to increase the number of women on boards, but the better example is the Living Wage – where civil society, government and employers have worked together, in a clear campaign, with increasing impact. Gavin Kelly’s excellent piece this week sets out what is going on and what we must learn from.  (Again though, we have been here before – with 2013’s promise of a new ‘One Stop Shop’ reappearing as a consultation question three years later.)

Lastly, it starts the conversation on reforming the Work Capability Assessment.  It is hard here not to feel a sense of déjà vu all over (if you squint, the Green Paper could almost be describing the problems that ESA was meant to fix, a decade ago) but the sentiment is right: we need to distinguish between cash entitlements, employment support and conditionality – even if assessing each of these is fraught with difficulty (as Ben Baumberg has set out really well).

All of this is welcome, and it chimes with research that we’ve done nationally and locally (for example most recently in Brighton and Hove).  But nonetheless the Green Paper is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

It doesn’t say that Jobcentre Plus work coaches will have more time to support ESA claimants.  As we said in our initial response, work coaches are resourced to spend just 88 minutes a year with ESA WRAG claimants, and no time at all with the 1.5 million in the Support Group.  It is in the government’s gift to change this – for example by trialling voluntary, specialist work coach support for the Support Group.

Nor does it acknowledge that the abolition of the Work Related Activity Component (WRAC) – in just five months’ time – will not only make many future claimants far worse off, but also further push people away from employment support and towards the ‘Support Group’.

It doesn’t consult on the funding of disability employment support.  We estimate that government is reinvesting just £1 in every £5 saved from abolishing the WRAC, while funding for the Work and Health programme will be less than half that spent on supporting disabled people in previous programmes.  

Nor does it acknowledge how financial incentives for will often get far worse under Universal Credit.  For example, a claimant in rented housing working two days a week at the National Living Wage will see their take-home pay fall from £115 a week in the current system to £69 a week under Universal Credit.  This needs to be addressed – either through reforms to work allowances or the reintroduction of a time-limited Return to Work Credit.

It also doesn’t set out how work coach discretion will be applied – often conflating benefit conditionality and employment support, and apparently abandoning plans for a common Gateway and in-depth assessment set out in the 2013 Strategy.

And it falls short on how the public sector will lead by example.  It is hugely welcome that all of government will sign up to Disability Confident by the end of next month.  But there are no hard commitments on recruiting disabled people into apprenticeships, traineeships, supported internships or work placements.  The public sector can and must do more.

The list could go on – on local integration, Income Protection, Sick Pay and Fit Notes the paper is bright green.  

But at least, as the government says, we are starting the conversation.  At Learning and Work Institute we are looking forward to responding with our proposals, and we would urge you to join the discussion.  After a decade of attempted reforms, this time we need to get it right.