Fair Accounting

It’s fair to say there’s been little love lost between the Coalition Government and disabled people as a group – and justifiably so; Demos and Scope charted the impact of welfare reform on disabled people for the first two years of the current Government. Even just considering the controversial Work Capability Assessment alone, there were problems with both implementation (with Atos, the company responsible for administering the assessment, ending its contract with DWP early) and the design itself (Demos and the University of Kent have been looking at how the UK might create an assessment that is fit for purpose).

Arguably as impactful as any formal policy, though, has been the emergence of a hateful ‘scrounger’ narrative. From 2010, public discourse about disability (reflected in the language of news headlines and articles) turned sour; where previously disabled people were described in ‘sympathetic’ or ‘deserving’ terms, the language used became increasingly pejorative, and links to ‘benefits fraud’ more explicit and more common.

As for the extent to which the 2012 Paralympics were able to counterbalance this, opinion is divided. The more sceptical argue that this just added another layer of unhelpful narrative, sometimes called ‘inspiration porn’ – the idea that disabled people are in some way ‘heroes’. For a group of people simply trying to advocate for equal treatment, equal access and equal opportunities, navigating a popularised polarity between ‘scrounger’ and ‘superhero’ is a real frustration.

What do these two – policy and attitudes – have to do with one another? It’s abundantly clear that more than one thing went wrong with those reforms – the WCA, unjust sanctions and perverse incentives for Work Programme providers are all name-checked in the Liberal Democrats’ Disability Manifesto, published yesterday. But if I had to single out one mistake in the Coalition approach, it would be this: the reckoning of gains and losses seemed all wrong. In place of a narrative looking at what the economy (not to mention individual workers) stood togain from supporting disabled people into work where they were able to do so, the emphasis was squarely on savings to the public purse in terms of reduced expenditure on benefits like ESA.

Not only is this form of accounting detrimental to disabled people – adding fuel to the fire of the hateful scrounger narrative – it doesn’t appear to be supported by the facts. Last year, a study conducted in Leeds by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that, for every unemployed person supported into a job paying a living wage, the Government gained, on average, £6,900 (essentially, the saving in terms of reduced/eliminated welfare expenditure), while the local economy gained just over twice that – on average, £14,000 per year. The study looked at unemployed people across the board, not disabled people, and it is important that the jobs concerned paid a living wage, but the point is this: why focus on the benefits saving, when the value added from people being in work is so much greater? Why focus on the price of the support people need, rather than the value of the work they provide?

In that respect, what the Lib Dem Disability Manifesto has to say about employment offers a glimmer of hope. Nick Clegg’s party promises to remove some of the current barriers – reviewing the assessment regime and improving the efficiency of implementation by clearing backlogs, expunging league tables and targets for sanctions in Jobcentres – to encourage employers to recognise the value of employing disabled people, with the public sector leading the way through a reinforced Public Sector Equality Duty, and to ensure tailored and accessible support through an overhauled Work Programme with an emphasis on local partnerships.

Coming as it does from a Party that part-presided over the changes of the past five years, the Manifesto should perhaps be consumed – rather like a packet of Golden Wonder circa 1990 – with a sizeable sachet of salt. Nonetheless, it does show a commitment  to what I’d call ‘fair accounting’ – to an approach that starts by valuing the contributions people make rather than calculating the cost of the support people may need.