I am writing this blog post in response to the War On Welfare debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 27th February.
May I make a confession? I helped put people in a position where they, through no fault of their own were left to languish on Incapacity Benefit. Why did I do this?
I was for most of the time, between November 1987 and November 1997 an Employment Service Adviser in Birmingham. During the Major Government, I was encouraged (though not in the way that Jobcentre staff are today) to help reduce the unemployment figures by helping people:
· into work
· into self employment
· or to claim another benefit, other than Jobseeker’s Allowance (and its predecessors) so that in doing so they would be removed from the unemployment figures.
All three outputs were of equal weight when the monthly Adviser team statistics were produced. I stress that there were no targets that were rigidly enforced. At most, if outputs fell below expectations one might get a stern talking to, either as an individual or as part of a team. However, we would often respond to such wiggings by pointing out that the nature of our client (not customer, not claimant) register, the state of the labour market and related matters meant that we could not meet national and local expectations.
To return to IB, we saw during the Major Government a significant proportion of people who were unwell, to say the least. It was, therefore, right for us to consider whether their health meant that they were not in a position to be available for and actively seeking work, the two fundamental conditions for receiving unemployment benefit. Many of this group, but not all, could not, with the best will in the world be considered to be available for and actively seeking work. Some when they came to see us already had a sick note. Others had been told by their doctor that they would not give them a sick note, because what would be the point? They were already on benefit.
The point was that someone on IB, after less than a year began to receive more money than they would have, if they had remained on an unemployment benefit. Therefore, there were a number of factors that led us to advise people to claim IB:
· more money in the medium term
· the state of their health
· senior management expectations
· and the state of the labour market.
I would like to unpack the latter. We saw people who were unlikely to ever work again, because of their previous work record. Many had worked all their lives for one employer. Often they had started their working lives in the early 1960s. Some even earlier. They were not equipped to compete in a local labour market whose expectations had moved on, sometimes dramatically from the days when they started work. They had looked for work back in the days when the Labour Exchange offered you a job or you went factory to factory, wearing out shoe leather looking for work. CVs, psychometric tests and so on were a foreign country. They were also looking for work at a time of high unemployment. Many were close to retirement age.
We were not an uncaring lot in the Jobcentres in those days. Others must speak for the attitudes they display today. We thought it cruel to pointlessly put this group of people through the mill, when often they were in a position to claim IB and eventually get more money thereby. They also continued to receive National Insurance Credits whilst on IB. NICs that would be used to determine the level of Contributory State Pension that they would be entitled to receive at either 60 or 65. Yes, we were interviewing women in this position too.
Men at the age of 60 and over, who had exhausted their entitlement to contribution based unemployment benefit were able to claim Income Support. They were not required to be available for and actively seeking work to receive this type of IS. Auto NICs kicked in automatically for men at 60, whether they were in work or not and whatever their income. These auto credits lasted for a maximum of five years, finishing on an individual’s 65th birthday.
The foregoing is the only real defence that I can put up for the actions that my colleagues and I carried out at that time. We felt that we were doing right by the people in front of us. I stress people, because unlike the Government Backbenchers in the WOW debate we saw people not as statistics, but as people like us. We were, more often than not from the same background. Our relatives and their friends had worked with similar people. Sometimes they even shared the same predicaments near the end of their working lives. Rightly or wrongly, we treated the people we were seeing in the way that we hoped people would treat our relatives and friends.
We were also overworked. We needed more time to spend with those who we felt had a better chance of returning to work, with or without help. If we met our notional targets, it took pressure of this group to find work. Significantly, we could commit more time and resources to helping the people in this group. The supply of help is always finite, the demands on that help are never infinite, but too often demand exceeds supply. Civil servants are not elected, but I and my colleagues were politicians. We had to choose; perhaps you might have done differently in our position. We thought we were doing the best at that time.
We were not unique. The same decision was being reached in Jobcentres across the country. In many places those decisions were influenced by the prevalence of the occupational illnesses of the old, declining industries, for example miner’s cough. In areas like South Wales and the North East, the numbers going on to IB were higher than the national average. The Major Government may not have issued a directive backing up our approach, but they cannot have been blind to the numbers of people claiming IB.
I was proud to see that the Opposition Benches were populated by people that really understood that they were not talking about statistics, but real flesh and blood people, like you and me. People who knew that we are all, never more than a day away from being reminded that we are all mortal. I was particularly impressed by Dennis Skinner’s oration, a subtle blend of humanity and fact, “I have to say—I will probably never say it again—that even in the Thatcher years this chaos did not happen. She did a lot of things—she privatised all the public utilities, smashed the pits and all the rest of it—but, by and large, we never had capability assessments or a march by 3,000 blind and disabled people, which was what heralded the beginning of this coalition.”
I guess I would single Dennis Skinner out, being a card carrying member of the Labour Party since I was 16 or thereabouts. Kudos too though to Caroline Lucas the Green Party MP for Brighton, Pavilion; Dr Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP MP for Banff and Buchan and Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP for Foyle. We may disagree about the best way to return Employment and Support Allowance to its original purpose, but I hope it is not presumptuous of me to feel that we do agree about the general direction of travel.
Do not get me wrong, statistics have their place, but has anyone come across any data that supports the Tory and Tory Democrat case. Has there ever been an occasion when IDS has used statistics that were not compromised to support his policies? As an aside, I gather that UKIP takes a more extreme view of social security matters than even that shared by the Tories and Tory Democrats.
I expected the Tory Back Benchers to display the attitudes that they did in the WOW debate. They are Tories. It is their stock in trade. I was appalled to see Alan Reid, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute try to out Tory them. May we now make a distinction between power mad Tory Democrats, like Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrats, like Charles Kennedy who strive to uphold the values of the Liberal Party?
On a related matter, there was a time when I thought (even hoped) that David Cameron was a One Nation Conservative. That he really got it, when he spoke of his young son and the difficulties of claiming Disability Living Allowance. I was baffled, though as to why he claimed it, given that he obviously did not need the money. That aside, I wanted to think that he was not shroud waving and using his son as a human shield against criticism of his Government’s social security ‘reforms’. I was trying, despite my politics to be fair minded.
To return once more to IB, we never imagined when we advised, even sometimes cajoled, but not forced people to claim IB that matters would pan out as they did. Just like today, many people only claimed IB for a relatively short period. They found work, yes, found work, Tories and Tory Democrats.
Many people, although not required to be available for and actively seeking work to continue receiving IB, still carried on looking for work when they claimed it. How do I know this? They came back to the Jobcentre for help. Those were the days, eh? People going to a Jobcentre for help and getting it too. We did what we could with the resources at hand. We were even able to arrange for proper Occupational Health assessments, courtesy of the Benefits Agency Medical Service. They produced reports, most of the time of such good quality that it was possible for us, working with our clients to map out a route by which they might return to work.
In, thankfully, very few cases were we forced to conclude that on health grounds it was not appropriate for individuals to start seriously looking for work. We would then suggest help, for example, college courses that we felt would improve someone’s employability whilst they got better. Courses, although few of us knew it at the time, which helped provide structure to a person’s life and contributed to the maintenance of good mental health.
What happened to other people on IB? Some retired. Some, as is the way of things, died. Some died because they were suffering from chronic conditions that foreshortened their lives. Some people in this group continued to look for work, despite their health. Others died, arguably before their time. It was only later that evidence began to stack up that people on IB were significantly more prone to deterioration in their mental health than most of the rest of the population. Often people recovered from physical ailments, only to then develop poor mental heath. In some cases, their physical ailments had masked the state of their mental health. Perhaps the evidence was always there about the medium and long-term effects of being left to languish on IB, but it was never widely known until years later? I really do not know.
Work so often, perhaps too much defines people. When someone loses their job, they often lose not just an income, but a social network built around work. They steadily lose contact with friends made through work. Their world shrinks. Their income shrinks at the same time. Being unemployed, Tories and Tory Democrats, is more often than not more stressful than being in work. Being out of work does not contribute to the maintenance of good mental health, whatever you might think. The evidence speaks for itself.
I referred earlier to having access to resources to help people on IB back into work. The range of help available to us, that is Advisers and clients was steadily (and covertly reduced) during the Major Government. Reduced by the likes of David Hunt, Michael Portillo and Gillian Shepherd.
People often ask me why I remain very happy that I was still up for Portillo in the small hours of Friday 2nd May 1997. Do you not have interests in common, history and particularly railways (an especial passion of mine)? Mr Portillo may re-invent himself as much as he likes. He was one of the Tories (along with Peter Lilley) who began the campaign to vilify recipients of social security payments. He was overseeing at the same time a reduction in the practical help available to people on benefits (other than unemployment benefit) to find and secure paid employment.
Indeed, it is true that “in the Thatcher years this chaos did not happen”. Little did we realise at the end of those years that a high watermark had been reached with the introduction of DLA, Disability Work Allowance and Severe Disablement Allowance. After that point the waters began to recede to where we are now. For a while between 1997 and 2010, the recession was halted and the water even started to rise back up towards the high water mark. It has once more begun begun to fall at a gathering rate. If only money was no object to help reverse that trend.
There was for a while a time when there was a broad consensus that the design of ESA accepted that people had been unfairly left to languish on IB. That the design of ESA explicitly recognised that there were some people who were unlikely ever to be able to work (again); the Support Group, who would receive the highest rate of ESA in recognition of their long term financial needs. That there was another much larger group who had the potential to work, even if only for a few hours per week; the Work Related Activity Group; they would receive less ESA than those in the SG, but more than they would receive if they claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance. Crucially, those in the WRAG would be offered bespoke help to return or start work. In addition, there was no talk then of scrapping DLA. 65% of those claiming DLA today are in some form of work. Would more be doing so if better support were available to the 35%? And the SG were to be offered the chance to access the support made available to the WRAG, if they wanted to use it to seek and gain work.
The design of ESA also recognised that some people would be found ineligible to receive ESA after their first or subsequent Work Capability Assessments. I do not think that sufficient thought went into how that transition would be handled both effectively and sensitively, particularly with regard to those on IB being assessed for ESA. I cannot imagine the shock that must result from being told you are not entitled to ESA after years of being in receipt of IB.
Membership of the ESA Assessment Group precedes an individual’s first WCA. The ESA AG includes people claiming ESA because of their employer Statutory Sick Pay ending. People who may have a job to which to return. I think it is reasonable to assume that some of this group will leave ESA before their first WCA appointment or even before then, depending on how well they are recovering from, say a broken leg. In addition, it is almost a truism that 50% of people who claim JSA cease to do so within six months of making a claim. This statistic held true even in the 1990s. A high turnover of social security recipients, rather than people ’languishing’ on social security is what often keeps numbers high. Whether 50% of those claiming ESA would also cease claiming it within six months seems unlikely. I would be interested to know how many would do so without the ‘assistance’ of Atos. In fact, is the current timetabling of WCAs Value For Money?
Quite rightly, the issue of WCAs is a very contentious subject. Their function was meant to be twofold. They have now become, it seems to me simply a way of denying people access to ESA. I propose to return to the vexed subject of the WCA process at a later date as it deserves more attention than I can give it in a few paragraphs.
I am not in a position to say if the rot set into ESA before or after May 2010, but it certainly spread more rapidly once the LibCon Coalition took power. I have nothing of value to add to the horror stories of misery and death that have become (disturbingly) so commonplace. Misery and death that is, in my opinion clearly linked to the WCA process. I will say one thing though. I was not proud, like a Backbench Government MP to say to the mother of a woman, a woman who was barely coping with being on ESA that I was proud that her daughter had a right of appeal. What comfort could I offer to her mother? Beyond listening to her and explaining about the appeal process. Why comfort? At the time, I spoke with this woman her daughter had already tried to take her life five times.
Some days, I wish I were a Tory, but only some days. It must be so easy to see the world in black and white. Then I get a grip and remember I know it is not so, whatever I might wish. The world, whether we like or not is a complex place. For the record, Tory and Tory Democrats, not everyone on ESA is a Person With a Disability and not everyone who is a PWD is on ESA. You may well be, in fact you must be working alongside PWDs and not even know that you are.
I have liberal values, like to think of myself as a progressive with left of centre politics. Consequently, I also disagree with anyone on the left who seeks to defend ‘a right to languish’ on benefits in reaction to the ‘reforms’ being carried out by the Tories and Tory Democrats. Such a stance plays into their hands and those of their friends in the media, yes; I do mean you, Daily Fail. In addition, I am not aware that the overwhelming majority of those receiving social security payments want such a right, whichever group into which they fall. I do believe that people have a right to be treated with respect, to receive social security and help tailored to their needs. A right to be allowed to retain their dignity and not be patronised. Ultimately, the right to be treated just like everyone else and not to be regarded, by some as second-class citizens, simply because they reach out to the wider community for help in a time of need.
I honestly believe that people should give according to their means and, just as importantly receive according to their needs. I think a big society built around that principle, David Cameron offers people real hope. A helping hand, not a lecture in morality!