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ESA - A Phoney Solution for an Unreal Problem

09/04/2014 17:05 BST | Updated 08/06/2014 10:59 BST

This week sees the publication of yet another excellent report by the independent disabled research team known as the Spartacus Network. Beyond the Barriers summarises the findings of their previous reports and other academic and international research. What they find is that the Employment Support Allowance (ESA), with all its complexity, is even more ineffective than the old system of Incapacity Benefit (IB):

  • The system is incoherent and confused
  • Its assessment process is harmful and ineffective
  • It is worse than useless at helping people find work

The researchers also make some very sensible suggestions about reform. Yet, while it is to be hoped that the Government (or the Opposition) will listen to them, there are reasons to be pessimistic. Policy-makers have, for several years now, ignored truth and morality; instead they have developed policies based on myth and prejudice.

I saw this close up on a visit to the Cabinet Office, shortly after the Coalition Government took power in 2010. I thought I had come to discuss how to extend and improve the system of personal budgets and self-directed support that I had been working on for the previous 20 years. But this was not on their agenda. They were only interested in getting people 'off benefits and into work'. One senior official said, "Surely there's no need for all those people on DLA with bad backs." I realised then that they had no notion of the facts; their starting point was the Daily Mail. Reality had left the building.

Disability Living Allowance (DLA) recipients have a wide range of different conditions, and people with bad backs (which is a very real condition) make up less than 5% of the total. It is not a generous benefit, and it has historically been under-claimed. It has also got nothing to do with work; you can claim it whether you are in work or not.

Policy-makers seem obsessed by the fact that there are a tiny number of people who do not want to work, but who perhaps should work. After a Freedom of Information Request on 12th April 2013 the DWP revealed that 1,374 people had been on Job Seekers Allowance for more than 10 years (that's 0.002% of the population); that's less than 10 people per local authority.

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I am sure there are more spoilt rich kids wasting their lives, and not making a proper contribution to society, than there are poor people unwilling to work. We don't need huge bureaucracies to solve this problem. This small problem has been blown out of all proportion because it suits the powerful to blame our problems on the weak.

In addition to this, there are many people who are sick or who have a disability and who are not in work. Some of these folk are not ready to work, and some are, but they face extra difficulties to get or keep work. These difficulties exist, not because of some flaw within the person, but because employers are not very good at including disabled people who are ready to work.

Today these two very different problems have become completely muddled. The ESA system, with its demeaning assessments and its ineffective Work Programme, is a sprawling public policy disaster. At its heart is the fallacy that central government can test, sanction and incentivise almost any one of us 'into work' with little regard to reality. We are their pawns, to be moved or sacrificed.

In my own opinion we are a long way from any sensible policy-making in this area. Disabled people and the poor are convenient scapegoats for our economic woes - despite their obvious innocence. But, if we were to have a sensible policy, I think it would look like this:

  1. Income security for all - The best system would be a universal basic income; but any system short of this should at least be simple and universal - so we all have a stake in setting the minimum income as high as possible.
  2. Income protection for all - Statutory Sick Pay or something similar protects people's income from sudden illness and this is important. However any such system tends to be more generous to higher earners, and so it should not be made too generous.
  3. Income enhancement for disabled people - Through no fault of their own disabled people find it harder to get and keep a job and so are more likely to be poor. So there should be a reasonable non-means-tested uplift for every disabled person, whether they are in work or not.
  4. Entitlement to support - People with significant disabilities need support, at home, at work and in the community; yet they and their families must juggle multiple systems in order to get that support. People need one system that provides enough support to ensure each person can live a full and productive life - in work or not.
  5. Local support - There is no need for the degrading and failing Work Programme or anything like it. In its place local communities should be enabled to develop their own solutions to help all citizens - not just disabled people - find and keep work.

We are a million miles from rational policy-making at the moment. Policy-makers are not trying to find good solutions for real problems; they are trying to sell phoney solutions for non-existent problems.