Monday, 14 March 2011

Disability Living Allowance reform: worrying elements

This column has returned again and again to the idea that the Coalition government's reforms are not necessarily ill-judged (that's for another day and perhaps another blog) but are often objectionable on quite another set of grounds: they are hasty, ill-tested, poorly thought-through and sometimes downright bad.

It's a good area for a public policy historian, because the long view lends perspective - and a sense of the politically wise and unwise.

Today's is disability allowance reform. I'm now old enough (and have the painful knees and shoulders to prove it) to remember the dying days of John Major's government of 1990-97, an administration that was often well-intentioned but blundered its way into a series of minefields. In the end the Disability Minister's own daughter turned on him and Downing Street was besieged by disabled protestors in wheelchairs. What a public relations disaster that was.

As is so often the case with a government keen to do everything in the five years of momentum it thinks it has, there's a sense of 'here we go again' on disability rights.

The Department of Work and Pension's new 'Employment Support Allowance' has some admirable aims. In theory, these are threefold: (1) replacing a complex set of allowances with a single payment that will eventually stand alongside the Universal Credit; (2) getting rid of a subjective test with an objective set of indicators covering whether you can work or not; and finally (3) supporting employment rather than dependence. Altogether the Government hopes to save a good proportion of the £12bn DLA budget, and to boost the economy by a similar amount as some disabled people move back to work.

Leave aside the idea that disabled people being supported by taxpayer-citizens are 'dependent'. One of the most worrying elements of the whole scheme is that it starts from assumptions - the main and overriding one being that many people on DLA could and should work. Perhaps some of them should - though taking away vital transport and advice services, as many of the Coalition's cuts do, is hardly the way to go about it. Disability Alliance, a charity that has laboured long and hard in just this area, is extremely sceptical about the whole botched structure. It's just as likely to push disabled people into poverty, by shoving them back onto Jobseeker's Allowance, than break the chains of immobility, depression and prejudice.

Stories proliferate of private companies employed to conduct the new 'tests' finding terminally-ill and very weak people 'fit to work' because they can hold a pen or stand up.

It's an unfortunate spin-off of yet another example of how not to do public policy:

(a) Very quickly and with little consultation, so that employers and others are hopping mad about being ignored in the project's design;

(b) Starting from financial or other assumptions that may or may not be true;

(c) Bringing in providers with little experience of a sector of economy or society. One hundred social care academics have just written to the Minister responsible to say so.

Another storm cloud on the horizon? You bet.