Thursday, 29 November 2012

Disabled? Work Programme? Bah, Humbug!

Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.
Scrooge: Are there no prisons?

It has been known for a while that the DWP, under the Glorious Leadership of the finger-wagging Iain Duncan Scrooge, plans to extend compulsory workfare to disabled people. Thanks to a DWP memo, we now know this will kick off on the 3rd of December, and as a lovely Christmas present for we ‘workshy’ Tiny Tims, Dear Uncle Iain Duncan Scrooge is extending the sanctions regime for disabled people from the very same date.

The implications of the Compulsory Workfare changes are that workfare contractors from the likes of A4E, Serco and Igneus are being given the rights to determine that a disabled person, who even ATOS have acknowledged is not fit for work, should in fact be forced to work for an indefinite term. These people are not experts in disability and they certainly are not experts in the limitations imposed by our individual disabilities. Worse still, they are driven by a bonus-dependent pay structure to get us into work come what may, yet they will have the authority to send us on indefinite forced labour, at a fraction of the minimum wage, no matter our objections that our disabilities will not allow us to do the work, or that it is actively dangerous to our health.

The memo repeats Dear Uncle Iain Duncan Scrooge’s favourite claim that work is good for you and that being out of work is actively bad for your health, almost as though DWP were desperate to convince their own staff and contractors that bullying disabled people into work is a good idea; the problem is that this research relates to the population in general, and is completely inapplicable to a cohort of disabled people ruled unfit for work by even the notoriously biased Work Capability Assessment. When I was working I used to end each working day curled up in foetal position on the office floor, in so much pain that I couldn’t think straight; I’m really not certain that counted as good for me.

It is particularly interesting that the memo is worded to refer to people in the WRAG as having ‘limited capacity for work’, whereas the ESA WRAG criteria define us as ‘not currently fit for work’. It is never a good sign when you need to hit the definitions with a sledgehammer to get them to fit your policy.

For those who have never experienced the DWP in action first hand, this may all seem a bit theoretical, and surely no reasonable person would expect a disabled person to do something they aren’t capable of, or that might even be dangerous to them? That is something I am sure Dear Uncle Iain Duncan Scrooge would be the first to claim, but I have actually been here before and yes, we do have something to fear. Back in 2009 I was claiming JSA, and was referred to Flexible New Deal, one of the workfare predecessors. Knowing full well that I was disabled and walked with crutches, JCP sent me to attend an interview with a workfare contractor in a building accessed up a flight of slippery external iron steps, in foul weather, in an office so stuffed with furniture I could barely fit into it and certainly couldn’t walk safely, where I was expected to discuss the intimate details of my disability while sat back to back with someone else discussing his ongoing drug problem.

Now, to the credit of the people who interviewed me, they realised immediately that I was far too disabled for the scheme and should actually be on ESA, but even with them reporting this back, JCP insisted that I had to go on the scheme come what may. It was only when I wrote a letter of complaint and copied it to my MP, in his persona as the then Minister for Disabled People, that there was a magical change in JCP’s attitude and would I please change my claim to ESA? My ESA claim has been a nightmare all of its own, but perhaps the salient feature for the current topic is that I was told I would be called for an interview with RBLI, the training arm of the Royal British Legion, which, I was warned, would be in a yet another building accessed up an external iron staircase….

I actually received a written apology from JCP admitting they had ‘lost track’ of my disability. Yet the initial contractor kept demanding I come back for further interviews, even though I wasn’t even claiming JSA any more, and, even once they ‘remembered’ I was disabled and moved me on to ESA, the workfare contractor, the commercial arm of a disability charity, dealing solely with disabled clients, had an office up a flight of external iron stairs and half a mile from the nearest disabled parking. That is not just ‘losing track’ of my disability, it is an active contempt for my disability, and even my safety.

And now that contempt is going to be capable of meting out mandatory workfare backed by sanctions. We already know from DWP data that disabled people are being disproportionately sanctioned. 10,130 sanctions were applied to around 8,500 disabled people (some being sanctioned twice or more), 45% of those sanctions were directed at people with mental health issues, despite only 30% of disabled participants having mental health issues. With Work Programme figures being released in different places at different times it is difficult to determine the overall rates of sanction, but combining the newly released outcome figures with the earlier sanction figures should give us a lower bound (as the earlier sanctions statistics will have applied to a smaller pool and there is anecdotal evidence sanction rates are increasing). That gives us 8,500 sanctioned from a population of around 80,000 disabled participants, or around 10.5%, which is significantly higher than on the Work Programme as a whole, where a Freedom of Information request has revealed a typical sanction rate of 6%. This sanctions regime applies even as the Work Programme fails to get disabled participants into work at an even greater rate than it fails non-disabled people (only 1.3% of disabled Work Programme participants were found work, versus 3.5% for non-disabled participants, and against an expectation that 5% would find help even without ‘support’). 

The sanctions changes are detailed on the DWP’s website. At the moment disabled people can be sanctioned if they don’t attend a Work Programme interview or don’t do whatever ‘work related activity’ is mandated, and I have already heard of disabled people being threatened with sanctions simply for having their disability manifest itself in the middle of a training course. Some contractors are even reported to have regional offices solely dedicated to handling sanctions, or to have reduced the sanctioning process to pushing a button, removing any chance of individual circumstances being adequately considered. Some even have targets for sanctioning (see this DWP document, page 77/78). The current sanctions start at 50% of your benefit, rising to 100% after 4 weeks, but stop when you are beaten into submission. That is bad enough, but under the new regime they won’t stop even when you submit, you will face an additional punitive fixed term sanction even after complying with whatever is being demanded, one week for a first ‘offence’, two weeks for a second, and four for any following instances. It is difficult to construe this as anything other than deliberate and calculated punishment, with no regard whatsoever for our disabilities.

It is also disturbing to note that even if you submit an explanation for why you are unable to participate, DWP expect you to participate while they consider it. If they don’t accept your explanation you can appeal to a tribunal – but better hope those are running faster than the one year plus delays currently being experienced on WCA appeals…

And the truly contemptuous irony, all of these savage changes from Dear Uncle Iain Duncan Scrooge are coming into force on 3rd December, the International Day of Persons with a Disability.

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