Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by Robin Stevens after the publication of the Welfare Reform Green Paper

  As one of the many long-term recipients of Incapacity Benefit, I welcome the Government's genuine attempt to improve the workings of the benefit system, and agree with most of the general objectives outlined in the recent Green Paper. Presently my health is far from good, so I will centre on aspects of the Green Paper which I believe need urgent attention, rather than applauding all the good in it (and there is considerable good in it.) It might also be useful to refer back to my earlier submission, Rethinking Incapacity Benefit, which whilst predating the Green Paper nevertheless explores some of the issues below in greater depth.


  The Green Paper sets commendable goals; however it is weak on describing the means by which these goals are to be achieved. Thus, giving a critique of the Green Paper is akin to punching a bag of feathers—there isn't enough of substance to hit out against! To be serious, there needs to be much clearer and more detailed thinking about implementation, so that the Government's laudable aims have a chance of being realised.


  The unwritten assumption behind certain sections of the Green Paper seems to be that one is either fully fit for work or unable to work at all (or in a transition from sickness to robust health). The reality is that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of British people will only ever be capable of doing a limited range of jobs, and only for a restricted number of hours a week. Additionally, the work capacity of many people will vary enormously as their health varies. A significant number of IB claimants, whilst at their best capable of doing valuable part-time work, are not and never will be capable of holding down a full-time job.


  Following on from point 2, above, a Government that is serious about helping long-term IB recipients return to employment, or at least become more integrated into society, needs to foster the emergence of a far more developed culture of flexible part-time working. Industry and commerce seem stuck in a mindset where a "job" must consist of about forty hours' work a week, which, in a stunning leap of imagination, might be divided into a job-share consisting of two twenty-hour posts. Logically, this need not be the case! In almost any company, business or organisation, it should be possible to employ people for as little as two hours per working day; the resulting Ten-Hour Week would be a boon for so many who are less than fully well, but who would like to do at least some work. Being in the workforce for even two hours each working day could be life-transforming for many IB claimants trapped in long-term jobless isolation. Twenty hours' work a week is simply too much for many of us to cope with.

  Creating millions of part-time jobs will require an energetic approach from the Government. Potential employers need to be given financial incentives to take on former IB recipients in a part-time capacity, and employment law needs to make it as practicable and cost-effective to employ four people for ten hours a week (or three people for thirteen hours a week, or numerous other part-time combinations) as to offer one person a forty-hours-a-week post. Could the Government lease with the CBI and other prominent business figures to disseminate this part-timer friendly work culture?


  In my recent search for work it was a great encouragement to know that there was a friendly Disability Employment Adviser in the local Job Centre and at the end of a phone line, with whom I had on-going personal contact. It is hard to over-estimate the value of such warm human contact! Ill people seeking to return to work are desperately vulnerable, and need all the supportive relationships they can get. What a shame that I only found out about the existence of my Disability Employment Adviser through a friend in another county!

  I applaud the Government's plans to appoint and train a host of advisers and counsellors, both paid and voluntary, and to have regular interviews with all but the most ill people on Incapacity Benefit. "Please talk to me, and show me you care!", is the cry of many an ill person, whose only face-to-face contact with Government organisations is an extremely stressful interview with a DWP doctor whose main purpose is to judge if the claimant is a fraud or not! Yes, we do need more unthreatening, genuinely helpful, face-to-face appointments; but the immense challenge here for the Government is to manage these interviews in a manner which fosters trust and a constructive alliance, rather than suspicion and defensiveness. Given that, according to the Green Paper, only one or two per cent of IB claimants are deliberate fraudsters, a gentle, sensitive, "softly, softly" approach to vulnerable claimants, with a caring, human touch very much to the fore, will surely yield the most positive outcomes.


  There are undoubtedly a considerable number of people who sincerely, but mistakenly, consider that they are incapable of undertaking any type of paid employment (even in a part-time capacity); given the right support, guidance and encouragement, many present IB claimants could gain the self-confidence and/or the appropriate work skills to break ingrained and long-term patterns of passive dependency, helplessness and low self-esteem, and get back to some kind of work. That said, there are conscientious ill people who could be pressured or persuaded, against their better judgement, to overreach themselves, thereby doing themselves considerable harm, physically, emotionally and psychologically. A friend of mine with lupus syndrome is convinced that trying to do too much in the early stages of her illness has hastened her physical decline, and my own ME, which I've had now for 15 years, was partly brought about, arguably, by returning to work too soon after influenza. Wisely deciding when to return to the workforce is often a delicate judgement, and certainly an important one; at all costs governmental agencies must avoid an inflexible, dogmatic, ham-fisted authoritarianism which could do lasting harm to many people.


  A sizeable minority (maybe 40%?) of IB claimants have a mental component to their illness or disability. This group of people are particularly vulnerable to feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress (sometimes even paranoia) at the prospect of official interviews about a possible return to work. That said, I do not counsel shying away from constructive and sensitive engagement with such people—far from it, that would be a cowardly response, not in the best interests of the ill people themselves! Nevertheless, for those with mental, psychological and emotional issues the kid gloves treatment is particularly appropriate if unnecessary hurt and distress (and even some suicides) are to be avoided.


  The complexities of the benefits system mean that even contemplating moving back into work is, for many ill people, enough to give them a relapse! The Green Paper makes some acknowledgement of the difficulties of this transition for many; the fear of being penalised, or of damagingly stressful encounters with bureaucracy, puts too many of us off moving forward in our lives, and it is surely not beyond the skill of top civil servants to sort this mess out!


  I am troubled at the suggestion that the newly ill, who are applying for IB, only receive JSA until their claim is processed. Becoming seriously ill is itself traumatic; compounding this trauma by needlessly imposing financial hardship on sick people is not the action of a caring, compassionate Government.


  I welcome the Green Paper addressing the part GPs play in upholding the present, unsatisfactory, IB status quo. Too many GPs automatically sign off patients, rather than encouraging them to explore avenues into at least part-time work—work which would often (not always) benefit the health and well-being of their patients. GPs need training to offer the best help and advice to their patients who are stuck on IB, or at the very least guidance to know where to direct them so they can receive appropriate help and advice. Additionally, many doctors sign off a patient as long-term sick because they know the patient can no longer hold down their old, full-time job; but these same doctors are often insufficiently aware of the possibilities new part-time work might offer, so the patient gets trapped in an unhealthy benefit dependency.


  The Government's good intentions will not effect lasting change unless the new benefits regime is properly understood, publicised, communicated and implemented. In my first decade out of work I received virtually no help, guidance or information from official channels as to possible ways forward for me; this was reprehensible neglect, and I suspect my experience has been the norm rather than the exception. Yes, constructive, on-going engagement with nearly all IB recipients has to be the correct way forward; getting the nature and quality of that engagement right will be a massive challenge for Government in the coming years.


Be sensitive—but be bold!

  Picking holes in any Green Paper is easy. Nevertheless, the basic aspirations of the Government's IB reform proposals are good. Without a sea-change in work and business culture where millions of part-time jobs are created, little progress will be made in moving people off IB and into work. The Government is right to seek to create an army of advisers and counsellors, both employees and volunteers, to help people back into employment; it is also right to make contact with such advisers obligatory for all but the most severely disabled of IB claimants. This deeper engagement with claimants must, however, be handled extremely carefully; a future White Paper needs to display much more detailed thought, and far more specific recommendations, in this sensitive and difficult area; it is not sufficient to say, as the Green Paper does, that the Pathways To Work pilots have worked well, so they will be reproduced nationwide. Statistically, Pathways To Work has thus far been a qualified, rather than overwhelming, success. We need more energetic appraisal, more trenchant analysis, more dynamic creativity, and more clear-headed realism, to produce much better outcomes, for the good of everyone.

  Above all I would urge the Government to combine great sensitivity with great boldness! Drastic change always provokes howls of protest, and of course all legitimate criticism needs to be carefully weighed. I fear, however, that under a deluge of ill-informed criticism and sheer prejudice, the Government might lose its nerve and hold back from the radical reform that all agree is desperately needed. My prayer is that the DWP Select Committee will not let this happen.

Robin Stevens, Baguley

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