The truth behind rising disabled employment: cuts, death and zero-hour contracts
The disability employment gap is narrowing, but this is against a backdrop of sanctions, funding cuts and insecure employment
Lawrence Bond suffered from a heart condition, shortness of breath and struggled with mobility. His GP had reportedly also made two referrals for mental health services. But, despite all that, the 56-year-old was declared “fit to work” at an assessment in July.
As a result, Bond’s benefits were slashed and he was told to get down to his local Jobcentre in Kentish Town to look for work. He launched an appeal against the ruling, but had no other options while he waited. “His anxiety was getting worse as he could not pay bills and was afraid to leave home to go to the shops,” his sister explained.
Then, in January, as he travelled back from the Jobcentre, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
The case of Lawrence Bond is not unique. 2016 figures showed that more than half of disabled people who appealed their “fit to work” assessment eventually got the decision overturned.
“We’re still seeing some really worrying things coming out of those assessments,” says Ayaz Manji from the mental health charity Mind. “There’s a lot of really poor decision-making. Lots of the people who make those assessments don’t understand mental health.
“We’ve seen people who’ve been denied the benefit because they’ve been described as ‘well-groomed’, or ‘able to look somebody in the eye’. But obviously those things aren’t a good indication of whether someone has a serious mental health problem that’s affecting their ability to work. Often the support that people get is quite generic and doesn’t really take their mental health into account.”
The chaos surrounding the assessments comes amid a government drive to get more disabled people into work. But although charities and activists share that ambition, they accuse the government of acting counterproductively, with a punitive agenda of sanctions and funding cuts.
In 2015, the Treasury claimed: “increasing employment levels among people with disabilities and health conditions is a key part of the government’s aim to achieve full employment.” Specifically, the government aims to “halve the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people”.
Recently, ministers said “we have seen hundreds of thousands more disabled people in work in recent years”. And, at first glance, the official figures suggest they are making progress. The number of disabled people in work has, indeed, gone up: from under 2.9m in late 2013, to more than 3.5m at the end of 2016. But most of this is not down to any government policy – it’s simply that there are now just more disabled people overall.
Actually, when compared to the total number of disabled people, the rise in employment is far less impressive. According to the ONS, the proportion of those in employment has gone from 44.2% to 49.5% over three years.
Drill down deeper and the picture looks more depressing. “There are a lot of people on a hand-to-mouth existence, on minimum wage, working part-time, or on zero-hours contracts,” says disability campaigner, Doug Paulley. And he’s right. The ONS says its employment figures include anyone who has worked “at least one hour”, as well as people on certain government training schemes.
“It’s not good enough to have an expectation that disabled people should just have any old job to get off benefits,” says Vicky McDermott, chief executive of the Papworth Trust. “We need to ensure that we’re supporting people into sustainable work.”
What’s more, employment rates are a lot worse among some categories of disability. Rob Holland of Mencap says: “The stats are going in the wrong direction when it comes to people with learning disabilities known to social services. The government has not done anything substantial to support this group when it comes to employment.”
According to Mencap, only 5.8% of people with a learning disability known to social services are employed. This figure has fallen from 7.1% in 2011-12.
The government has framed its rhetoric on this issue in terms of helping people off the scrapheap and into work. “A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life – or in the workplace,” ministers have said. “What should count is a person’s talents, their determination and aspiration to succeed.”
But Holland suggests this narrative is misleading because, in some cases, people are simply not able to have a job. “These are people with terminal conditions and substantial needs who are not expected to work,” he explains. Although people should be encouraged to work if they are able to, the system is too punitive and forceful, he says.
McDermott says that as a disabled person with a job, she believes it’s important disabled people are given the opportunity to work if they can and they want to. “I’m really keen that, as a society, we don’t put people on the scrapheap on the basis that they are disabled. However, I think it’s also fair to say that for many disabled people, it is hugely difficult.”
For disability campaigner Paulley, the government rhetoric has fed into a characterisation of disabled people as benefits cheats. “With disabled people, you’re either a heroic individual who does what they do despite everything that’s thrown at them; or you’re some kind of failure, a drain on society, a user of resources, somebody who uses up the social care budget and doesn’t provide any benefit,” he says. “That’s a huge over-simplification, but it does feel like that characterisation is pursued by a lot of people in my view.”
“On one hand, there’s this rhetoric of wanting people back into work. But on the other hand, there’s continual cutting. Disabled people are some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. Rugs are being pulled out from under people’s feet.”
Disability charities agree that the best way to get people into work is through thoughtful support and flexibility. Yet the main method of driving up employment among disabled people continues to be through assessments, sanctions and cuts. And new changes to the system look set to make the process even tougher.
In 2018, the government’s central employment schemes are set to be replaced with a far smaller programme, with less funding and supporting fewer people . It is also not yet known if support from the £500m-a-year European Social Fund will be fully replaced beyond 2020.
Separately, more than 444,000 disabled people who the government believe are able to work look set to have their benefits cut by £30 a week. The decision was postponed in 2016 but is likely to be included in next month’s Spring Budget, campaigners say.
Apparently this cut is meant to avoid disabled people being “disincentivised” to find a job. But it could have exactly the opposite effect. “The cut will only apply to new claimants,” Rob Holland explains. “So if you get a job and then leave after 12 weeks, then you go back on the lower rate. It’s a disincentive. You’re basically treated as a new claimant after 12 weeks.”
There are also proposals to give Jobcentre staff “full discretion” over whether any disabled people claiming benefits should be made to prepare for work. “These are people who have been assessed as too unwell to take steps towards work,” says mental health charity Mind. “It’s vital that any support they are offered is entirely voluntary and sensitive to their health needs.”
So will the disability employment gap ever improve? McDermott says the best way to support someone into work is not to leave them worried about how they’re going to pay their rent, or how they’re going to eat that week. “Creating destitution for disabled people is an unhelpful thing to do, and lots of people are worried about how they’re going to cope.”