In the UK today disabled people are astonished by the absurdity of a whole new system that has emerged out of the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) in order to solve the problem of unemployment for disabled people. This system has many parts including the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), so I will call it the ESA System.
The ESA System is failing and is bound to fail. The system is bound to fail because it is solving the wrong problem in the wrong way. Whitehall doesn't know how to solve the problem of unemployment, nor does it know what the real problem of unemployment is.
The problem of unemployment is not one problem it is two logically distinct problems:
- People need a basic level of income in order to live with dignity. Work is one way to achieve this income, but sometimes people cannot find work to pay them the necessary income or they are unable to work because of sickness or other more important obligations (like taking care of children or a partner who is sick).
- People need opportunities to contribute. All human beings need to feel valued and paid work is one important way of making a social contribution - although it is not the most important way (being a parent is certainly a more important form of work than any paid job).
In the United Kingdom, which has the most centralised welfare system in the world (after New Zealand) we leave the solution of these two problems to the DWP in Whitehall. And, over the past few years, the DWP has introduced a complex array of inter-linked measures to 'solve' these two problems:
- Assessment - assessments have been moved away from disabled people or their family doctors and contracted out to Atos, a private French company, which then applies the Work Capability Assessment. This test divides people between the Support Group (where work is not treated as a realistic prospect) and the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). If you are put in the WRAG your income is reduced, although there is no evidence that your prospect of work has increased.
- Benefits - The system has become progressively less generous, with different benefit levels for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). Some disabled people, who pass all the necessary tests, receive £106.50 per week, which is just a little lower than a basic state pension. But for many others, including many disabled people, the system is even less generous with income levels ranging down to zero (depending on your assessment scores, other income, savings, family situation and your obedience with any conditions set by your 'service provider').
- Assistance - Assistance to find work has now been contracted out to large private corporations. This 'Work' Programme also gives providers the capacity to punish people for not doing as they are told or forcing them to work for free (Workfare). The programme has been markedly unsuccessful, particularly for disabled people where only 5% have found work.
The whole panoply of tests, systems and rules, all with their own weird acronyms, lend an appearance of rationality to the system; but all of this is an illusion. The system makes no sense and is based on a deeply flawed understanding of the real world and the basic laws of economics:
- It is absurd that the DWP pays a French company to do assessments that disabled people and family doctors could do better, for free.
- It is absurd that the DWP believes that by further impoverishing people on JSA or ESA it actually helps make us a fairer or stronger society.
- It is absurd that the DWP believes it can help create work in local communities when it has no relationship with, or understanding of those local communities.
It is time for a different approach. Why not:
- Close down the DWP - There is no need for a Department of Work & Pensions. Benefits and taxes should be integrated within HMRC.
- End Newspeak - The current terminology is deceitful and only serves to keep us confused about what a decent system can and cannot do, its time to end the nonsense of 'Job Seekers Allowances' or 'Employment and Support Allowances' etc.
- Focus on Basic Income - In the long-run it is the basic income level that is the most important foundation of any decent system.
- Justifiable Supplements - There is a good argument for supplementing that basic income when people are always likely to be disadvantaged by their disability.
- Welcome innovation - There is a strong track record of helping disabled people find work in places like North Lanarkshire Council when you focus on local solutions and positive partnerships between people and employers.
- Support the Local - We keep asking central government to solve problems that can only be tackled at the local level. Over time this has left the local level powerless to make changes, lead innovation or show what is really possible.
The absurdity of the ESA System is an opportunity to create a radically better system, without the patronising and divisive thinking which currently corrupts public policy.