An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


More from the DWP – disabled people and employment


The DWP has released more information today on policies affecting disabled people. This time it’s the qualitative review of the Work Programme.1 This is one of the government’s and Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship ideas, designed to help people with barriers to employment back into work.

The key points at the end of the summary are quite interesting. The research suggests, according to the authors:

limited use of specialist provision to address individual barriers to work, and that the
personalisation of support is often more procedural than substantive in nature;

deficiencies in communication and information flow (in both directions) between Jobcentre Plus
and Work Programme providers; and

that many providers are prioritising more ‘jobready’ participants for support, ahead of those who are assessed as having more complex/substantial barriers to employment.2

Employment isn’t my area of expertise, although it is worth noting some context. Finding work for people who have substantial barriers to employment – single mothers, people leaving prison, disabled people, poorly-educated or poorly-skilled people, older people, and so on – is a difficult task. This is doubly difficult in a recession.

Often it is not that a person is unqualified. Rather, they aren’t as qualified as someone else.

Take the example of two people applying for one position. Both meet the minimum requirements for the job. Person X is 32, has eight years experience in the industry and is married without children. She is willing to work as much overtime as the boss needs, and has had experience as an intern in a related industry while she was at university.

Person Y is 58 and requires a wheelchair to get around. His health condition means he can work the core hours, but because he has a sick wife to look after he cannot work overtime. He only has the bare-minimum two years of experience in the job, and has not worked for four years because his last employer went bust and he could not get other work.

Which do you hire? Clearly, Person X can do the job better than Person Y. It’s not malicious discrimination against Y, simply a logical economic choice made by the employer needing to look after her business. The “best man for the job” got the job.

Now, when 20 people are applying for one position, as happens in times of recession, this story is happening all over the country every single day.

The government has known this for years. After the Second World War, specific efforts were made to ensure that wounded ex-service personnel were not denied access to the workforce. They had, after all, sacrificed their bodies for freedom (as was the narrative of the day).3

The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 gave legal recognition to the category of disabled people.4 After the War a company now called Remploy was created, offering sheltered employment for disabled people. That is, it specifically employed disabled people and got a grant from the government to cover any losses the company might make.5

Remploy is and was controversial. Disabled people’s organisations detested the segregation of “disabled” from “able-bodied” workers. On the other hand, it did provide employment to those who could not necessarily compete for work in the open jobs market.

When employment is scarce, those with the most experience, qualifications and contacts get the few jobs that are going. Disabled people are excluded from achieving many of these and therefore lose out in the competition. This compounds the problem.

The Work Programme is supposed to be addressing this, and it better get its act together. In response to disabled people’s organisations grievances with sheltered employment, the government has closed a number of Remploy factories, promising to find work for those who lost their jobs.6

Only 3.5% have found work. 35 out of 1,000.7 As if any further proof is needed that financial – rather than “civil rights” and “equality” – concerns were of far greater importance to the government.

Now, this is unsurprising if the Programme is following the third point made in the quote from the report. ‘Prioritising “jobready” applicants’. We can see why. There are plenty of qualified and able disabled people out there (and from other historically marginalised groups). Make the right connections and many will find and retain employment. This looks good on the statistics, as jobs are found for people in problem categories. All very good for the league tables.

But it completely screws the people who clearly need the most support, even in times of “full” employment.

The history of employment for disabled people is not good. On the one hand we have the sheltered workshops which create segregation but allow the authorities to claim they are supporting disabled people. On the other, we have a rapidly rising (through the 80s and 90s – not today) number of people on out-of-work benefits on account of a health condition.

But the problem isn’t about adapting people to jobs. The problem is that the jobs market discriminates against disabled people. This is most of the time not malicious. Businesses are looking for the most qualified and most flexible labour they can find. But by deliberately creating a situation of low employment levels, few entry-level jobs and squeezing the finances of public and private businesses and citizens, anyone considered in any form a “risk” simply will not be hired.

Governments cannot create unemployment and disability – if defined by those without work because of a health condition – and then blame citizens for the rise in Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. It needs to

  • get the economy back on track;
  • provide more work through public and private investment;
  • and/or stop treating all people without work and the means to support themselves as lazy or defective.
  1. Department of Work and Pensions: Research and Statistics. 27 November 2012
  2. DWP Research summary, ‘Work Programme evaluation: Findings from the first phase of qualitative research on programme delivery
  3. Similar “rehabilitation” moves were made after the First World War. See: Helen Bolderson, Social Security, Disability and Rehabilitation : Conflicts in the Development of Social Policy, 1914-1946, (London : Taylor and Francis, 1991).
  4. Clause 1 defines a disabled person as ‘a person who, on account of injury, disease, or congenital deformity, is substantially handicapped in obtaining or keeping employment, or in undertaking work on his own account, of a kind which apart from that injury, disease or deformity would be suited to his age, experience and qualifications; and the expression “disablement”, in relation to any person, shall be construed accordingly. See: Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, c. 1.
  5. The annual reports of Remploy are available from The National Archives, and are quite an interesting read. See: TNA, BM 7.
  6. This was in response to the “Sayce Review” – DWP, Getting in, staying in and getting on : disability employment support fit for the future, Cm 8081 (London : TSO, June 2011). Liz Sayce, (then CEO of RADAR) expanded on the arguments against segregation, making the business case that it would cost less to train and place disabled people in open employment than to continue to subsidise sheltered factories.
  7. The Guardian, 23 November, 2012.
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