Abstraction, reality and thanks at Christmas

[Y]ou must ensure that the effects of your policies are seen only as abstractions rather than as the suffering of real people.

So notes Chris, and he’s absolutely right.

Take the “welfare” state, for example: it’s not just for disabled people or immigrants, but (depending on your view of things), for every young person (Child Trust Funds), every family (Child Tax Credits) and every older person (the pension, considerable numbers receiving Attendance Allowance). But our debates and coverage hardly ever note this, so that a continual erosion of the welfare state is both philosophically and politically possible.

The bit of Chris’s post I particularly liked is that this applies just as much to modern management, which:

deals largely in symbols and abstractions…[with] little direct contact with the organization’s workers, with the production of its goods or services, or with its customers.

I don’t know why, but the “thanking” of staff who work in sectors like health and social care at Christmas time has always slightly annoyed me. Reflecting on this in the context of management abstractions, I wonder if my annoyance is because this thanking reflects the distance between managers and staff, so that managers can quickly and easily say “thanks” at no personal cost, whilst staff actually have to do the 10-hour shift on Christmas Day?



The disability rights agenda: too narrow, possibly lost, or both?

I fear we’re in danger of the disability rights agenda being too narrow, possibly lost, or even both.

I say this because of the following 8 impressions, which are by no means comprehensive:

  1. The emerging Green Paper from the Department of Health seems to be focused primarily on people with learning disabilities or autism [1]
  2. A related blogpost (which happens to be from my employer) calls for a progressive learning disability agenda across the sector and society that values “rights, independence, choice and inclusion for ALL people with learning disabilities” [my emphasis]
  3. Preserving the Independent Living Fund is presumed to be the same as preserving independent living, when I suspect in practice campaigning attempts will (if successful) preserve funding levels around individuals specifically related to care and support
  4. Welfare reforms and resulting campaigns have focused on specific issues like the Work Capability Assessment and who provides the assessment service, or the Bedroom Tax – both largely from a deficit-based, medical model perspective). There has been comparatively little focus on employment support for disabled people or what housing options are available
  5. There has been very little broad campaigning action beyond those interested in higher education on the proposed changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowance
  6. Lobbying and campaigning regarding the Children & Families Act has been largely confined to children’s charities and SEN-related organisations, and doesn’t seem to have reached the broader disabled people’s movement
  7. Disability hate crime appears to have dropped off the agenda
  8. Anything relating to “people with mental health problems” largely remains a separate consideration to issues regarding “disabled people”.

There are some brighter spots, of course: the Care Act (albeit “only” in the sphere of social care) and positive attempts to mobilise the “disability vote” are two.

But, whilst there are arguments which could be made for each of the things listed above being separately needed, to my mind there is no overarching framework within which all of them hang together. There is no agenda around which all people with a commitment to disability rights and equality for all disabled people can coalesce.

In this context, the apparent disappearance of the Office for Disability Issues, the most recent, relatively lacklustre attempt at any sort of disability policy agenda (Fulfilling Potential), and the loss of whatever momentum there was from the Paralympic Games, are all major causes for concern. Irrespective of how effective they were, they represented the last political, policy and institutional bases of the disability rights agenda.

What to do? Clearly, we need to wrestle back a disability rights agenda into the political sphere. There are at least two active suggestions as to how this can be done:

  1. Establish a Disability Rights Taskforce after the next general election
  2. We should consider disbanding the Department for Work & Pensions and shift to an approach that works on a themed basis that more specifically has responsibility for a wide-ranging disability rights agenda, e.g. a Department for Inclusion.


[1] – I haven’t included any reference to the LB Bill because I believe its intention is for it to apply to all disabled people, not just to people with learning disabilities.

On Labour’s recent disability discussion paper

There is much to be welcomed in Labour’s discussion paper, “Making Rights a Reality for Disabled People” (pdf), including:

  • Using the period leading up to the General Election to develop ideas and to generate debate about disabled people’s priorities
  • Undertaking this process with disabled people
  • Challenging what is thought to be wrong with current policies regarding disabled people. For example, the paper feels to me to be spot on when it says the changes to DLA stem from saving money and not much else, or when it says that unsustainable risk falls on small third sector providers in the Work Programme, or when it says that the changes to Legal Aid will leave the most vulnerable without any legal support when things go wrong
  • Highlighting that disabled people are bearing a greater brunt of cuts in government expenditure than, for example, bankers
  • Reasserting that (a) rights should be fundamental to a society where disabled people are valued as participating members of the community, and (b) universal provision should be just that, “universal”
  • Similarly, talking of Social Security rather than Welfare (a point Jenny Morris has made many times, and with which I was previously unsure but have now seen Jenny’s point on).

There are also, and you can probably see where I’m going with this, a few things that worry me a little about the discussion paper, including:

  • The conflation of “universal provision for those who need extra help because they are unable to work” (my italics). First of all, extra help isn’t limited to only those people who can’t work (think Access to Work); and second, as JRF has regularly pointed out, help is also needed for people who are in work
  • Noting that RNIB told Labour “currently someone who is totally blind can be found fit for work”. Erm, yeah – blind people can work!
  • The precarious line that’s being drawn between welfare rhetoric and disability hate crime (on which, read Neil Crowther’s excellent post)
  • The headings of each section are excellent. The body of each section, though, takes one or some of the government’s welfare changes and has a (justified) dig at them. That’s fine, but there’s a big leap to be made between people’s benefits and people’s rights (see point at the end of this post). This is quite aside from how narrow it makes the focus: the right to a home is much more than Housing Benefit
  • Putting the issue of the cumulative impact assessment of changes to policies affecting disabled people so much to the forefront (Demos, amongst others, have already done a great job on highlighting the cumulative impact). This begins to mistake process for policy – something also done in the paragraph on improving assessment, and which makes no reference to the two significant recent attempts to do just that (Right to Control and the Individual Budget pilots)
  • Claiming mismanagement of Remploy (something Labour itself did)
  • Not recognising some of the more positive things that have happened in the last couple of years, including the Access to Elected Office Fund and the Paralympics
  • No meaningful mention of education, civic participation, culture or transport. Why not?

It’s a slightly longer list than what’s good in the document, but I think it’s salvageable if the Labour party is willing to do what it says it will do: listen to and act on, meaningfully, what disabled people want.

There are two wider points to make.

The first is a lingering feeling I have from the document that Labour’s focus is more on impairments you can see than those you can’t. I didn’t get much sense that people with learning disabilities or mental health problems, for example, were prominent in their thinking and I hope there is more focus on these groups in ongoing discussions.

The second picks up on Neil’s blogpost about frames. The whole document has a very heavy basis in welfare, particularly benefits. This is paternalistic at best and, to my mind, doesn’t provide the right platform on which the rights of disabled people should be built.

Others regularly put it better and more eloquently than I will here, but the state must be not only a safety net when people need it, but a mechanism by which the barriers disabled people face can be addressed and removed such that disabled people can use their strengths, capabilities and assets to contribute to their communities and society as a whole.

We’re not moralising, but it’s a sin

Iain Duncan Smith, launching his welfare reforms on Thursday 11 November 2010:

These announcements are an important step towards reform. They aren’t driven by a desire to moralise or lecture.

Iain Duncan Smith, speaking about his welfare reforms on Thursday 11 November 2010:

[I]t’s a sin that people fail to take up work

(For more on the government’s use of language, start here.)

Nick “Dickens” Clegg

More of that, erm, non-inflammatory language from the coalition government today, with this offer from Nick Clegg:

Welfare needs to become an engine of mobility, changing people’s lives for the better, rather than a giant cheque written by the state to compensate the poor for their predicament.

Compensate “the poor” for their “predicament”?

It’s like living in a Dickens novel.

The great ignored?

Earlier this week, Iain Duncan Smith gave a key note speech on reforming welfare. This was in light of the Emergency Budget.

I think it’s worth noting that he doesn’t mention disabled people or Disability Living Allowance once.

Why should he? It’s not like there are any issues arising from the Budget that affect either of these. Apart from this, of course.

Two US perspectives on welfare / workfare

Lawrence M Mead:

In 1986, Mead’s big idea was to push welfare recipients into jobs – an approach that came to be known as “workfare”. Unlike those on the left who wanted to change capitalism, Mead wanted to change the poor. The academic argued that disorder stemming from the actions of the inner-city poor, rather than a lack of opportunity, lay at the collapse of their communities. What was needed, he argued, was to “enforce values that had broken down” with an expensive, intrusive bureaucracy that “helped and hassled” people back to work…

Mead’s solutions are controversial – being simultaneously draconian and costly. More than 2.5 million people in Britain on disability benefits, he says, is “way too high” and claimants must be forced into an “activity”. There should be benefit cuts to drastically shake out those claiming fraudulently, says Mead. “People say they want to work but they are not actually working.”

Danny Dorling:

If I were advising him [Frank Field] on his review, I would suggest he start by looking at what George Bush enacted in his last days in office as president of the United States. He signed into law an extension of unemployment benefits. Despite his political instincts for “tough love” of the poor, and despite the US’s precarious financial position, full unemployment benefits were extended by another seven weeks across the country and by as much as 20 weeks in those states where unemployment rates were highest. When unemployment is high and rising, you raise benefits because it is clear there are many more people looking for work than there are jobs. Even Bush got this.

Barack Obama went further and significantly raised taxes on the rich to pay for increased benefits for what Americans call “struggling Americans”, “Americans with disabilities”, “American children” and “elderly Americans”, to remind themselves that others are like them.

Poverty, worklessness… and #DLA?

The new coalition government published its “State of the Nation” report on “Poverty, Worklessness and Welfare Dependency” last week. This is clearly an important document since it sets out the perspective from which a key department will operate in a vital area over the coming parliament and, as the document itself notes, provides an overview that “will be used to inform policy decisions” (p6).

This posts notes some key themes of and issues with the report, particularly relating to Disability Living Allowance.

The first point is the overarching narrative the report builds. It is one that supports the ‘Broken Britain’ soundbite we’ve heard so much over the last few months. I’ve made the point before that “governing in the national interest” depends on what you think is in the national interest, and much the same stands for the issues of poverty and welfare. How you approach these issues and the outcomes you are hoping to achieve is informed fundamentally by your political beliefs.

Thus, in my view, the report is quick to note statistics and trends that support the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative, especially focusing on people out of work and on benefits. The language it uses cements this, talking of people ‘parked on benefits (p3), and the main imperative of the report is one that identifies work as the means to solve the majority of problems the report highlights.

I have no direct issue with this – it is the prerogative of a government to build a narrative in whatever way it wants to. It is worth noting, though – as the report itself does – that relative poverty (i.e. those on less than 60% of median income) fell between 1997/98 to 2008/09 (p15) and that absolute poverty (those on less than 60% of 1998/99 real-terms median income) also fell over the past decade (p15). Similarly, wealth inequality in 2005 was around the same level as it was in 1996 (p22). I can selectively quote statistics, too, it would seem.

The report is good on noting the inbuilt disadvantage that many groups of people face. For example, it notes that disabled people:

  • Are more likely to live in poverty (29% of families live in poverty when at least one family member is disabled, compared with
  • 20% of families with no disabled people) (p8)
  • Are more likely to live in persistent poverty compared to non-disabled people (11% compared to 5%) (p18)
  • Are less likely to be in work (over half of disabled people do not work) (p9)
  • Are less likely to have formal qualifications (24% of disabled people have no formal qualification) (p12)

It has similar statistics for people from BME backgrounds, though not for people at different income levels.

But the report then doesn’t note the factors which lead to these institutional barriers: it appears good enough to note 24% of disabled people have no formal qualifications or that over half are not in work and offer no reasons for this. The effect is to create a suspicion whichs fall on disabled people as not trying hard enough to gain a qualification or get a job – something it is convenient not to correct in order to maintain the overall narrative.

(Similarly, pupils with Special Educational Needs face some of the most significant barriers to educational achievement it is possible to face. However, the only mention of pupils with SEN in the report (in the educational disadvantage section) is to note that 9.2% of pupils with SEN are ‘persistent absentees’, compared with 2.1% of pupils with no SEN.)

Thus, if you want to build a narrative, it is perfectly possible to do so. Taking this approach, at best, the report draws the wrong conclusions based on the evidence available; at worst, it is willfully ignorant.

The best example of this is the report’s treatment of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

The motivations for the coalition government to look at DLA are clear. In 2008/09, DWP spent £16.2bn on disability benefits from a total budget of £135.7bn. This was the third largest area of expenditure, behind the state pension (£62.7bn) and housing benefits (£17.2bn). If the coalition government is going to make inroads into budget cuts, it will feel it will have to look at disability benefits.

The report has 8 separate mentions of DLA (the second biggest disability benefit, behind Attendance Allowance), compared to just one indirect mention of Attendance Allowance (in the key of a table) and no other disability-related benefit. In these mentions, the report:

  • Notes the rise in the numbers of disabled people claiming DLA, from 1.2m in 1997 to 1.8m in 2009, with an associated spending increase of £3.9bn in 1996/97 to £6.2bn in 2009/10 (p35)
  • Notes the “persistence” of DLA claimants, noting that 2.2m disabeld people (including 1.1m disabled people of working age) have ‘been claiming’ DLA for over 5 years (p34)
  • Calls DLA an ‘out of work’ benefit (pp33-34)
  • Equates disability benefits with sickness benefits (p28)

It is worth noting that at no point does the report define what DLA is for. (DLA helps with the additional costs of disability, primarily related to personal care. It is for people under 65, though you can continue to be in receipt of DLA over the age of 65 if you have it before you are 65. Attendance Allowance is the equivalent for people over 65. Both are non-means tested.)

The sum total of this narrative around DLA leads me to believe that DLA is likely to face cuts by the coalition government. By noting the increase in spending on DLA, the increase in the number of ‘claimants’, the ‘persistence’ of such DLA ‘claimants’, being woolly over DLA as an ‘out of work’ benefit (which it isn’t) and not directly mentioning any other form of disability benefits, the direction of travel is clear.

And yet the coalition government would be drawing exactly the wrong conclusion about DLA. This is based on information contained in its own report, as follows:

1. The report notes that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. It notes disabled people are less likely to be in work than non-disabled people. It notes that disabled people are less likely to have formal qualifications than non-disabled people. DLA is therefore likely to make up a greater proportion of someone’s income than a non-disabled person’s equivalent. Reducing or removing it is therefore likely to have a greater impact on a disabled person’s existing situation, especially as DLA is for care and support.

2. The report notes that pensioner poverty is greatest amongst pensioners not in receipt of disability benefits (p20). The same would also hold of working-age disabled people not in receipt of disability benefits, namely those who would be affected by any reduction in or removal of DLA.

3. It notes that “over one in five DLA claimants are in the top two income quintiles (when DLA is included as income and no account is taken of extra costs of disability)”. In the first instance, DLA is designed precisely to take account of the extra costs of disability/impairment, so the parenthesis in the quote are duplicitous. In the second instance, and taking the figures at face value, they tell us that over 20% of DLA claimants are in the top 40% of income distribution. That is, 80% of DLA claimants are in the bottom 60% of income, meaning more precisely that DLA is targeted exactly at those disabled people who live in relative poverty.

The report’s treatment leads you to one conclusion only: that DLA is under threat.

I therefore come back to my overarching point about the type of picture you want to paint. If you want to suggest that Britain is ‘broken’ and that there is a rump of poorly educated and unemployed people who rely on out-of-work benefits rather than get back into work, then you can use the statistics in the way the coalition government has chosen to do.

If, however, you want to make the case that some benefits are well-focused and support precisely those people who face institutional barriers to enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else – such as the role of Disability Living Allowance in the lives of disabled people – then this is equally as plausible.

The fact the coalition has opted for the former approach, with some convenient details missing (such as what DLA is actually for), leads me to believe DLA is under significant threat. And that, as I have demonstrated – and not just in terms of its real effect for disabled people in Britain – undermines the coalition government’s own case for addressing poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency.