Last year I was honoured to be asked to write a guest blog for Involve on the impact of welfare reform and in particular how that affected people living with, and recovering from, mental ill-health.
With the publication of their new Action Trackers report (April 2015) I’m privileged to have an opportunity to reflect on my thoughts last year and consider, post-election, how welfare reform might now impact on people living in Yorkshire and Humber.
I have never made any secret of the fact that I believe in welfare reform. For the majority our system works just fine but, after twenty years working with the vulnerable, excluded and chronically unwell, I have no doubt whatsoever that it fails many who need extra support when times are tough. It relies on the most general of categorisations, algorithmic decision making and virtually no ability to respond to individuals who live in rapidly changing situations. We are therefore stuck with a behemoth like institution that, on the one hand proffers a lifeline, yet in return embeds and reinforces dependency to the very core of a person’s life.
Whether paid or unpaid, a rewarding job offers us a sense of belonging, self-worth and appreciation that, alongside good housing and stable relationships, gives most of us the foundation we need from which to build our lives. This is not just an abstract statement. I have been unemployed and taken the journey myself from Jobcentre to Volunteer Centre to volunteer and eventually back into paid work.
I also know how frustrating and frightening it can be to be claiming benefits and having to turn down a day’s work, a short term job and even extra volunteering because you’re afraid it will affect the benefits you receive. When you are living on next to nothing you simply can’t afford to take this risk. Complications with JSA lead to complications with Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and, for some, a whole host of other problems. Who is ever going to risk their home for the sake of a few hours a week or a couple of days pay?
And there’s the rub – the huge contradiction at the heart of our welfare system.
We talk about supporting people back into work but much of this work has been contracted out to profit making ‘Prime Providers’, a flawed system devised under the Blair/Brown government, continued under the coalition and showing no sign of abating with the new administration. The central flaw in this process is that providers are only generally paid if they move people back into work. Fine you might say but what this means in reality is that, given the low levels of expectation, providers simply focus their efforts on those closest to the job market – those who, in reality, would probably have gone back to work anyway without any help or support from the catchily named ‘Work Programme’.
And the rest; the more challenging, disabled, older, younger people? They tend to be ‘referred on’ for ‘specialist support’. Sounds great doesn’t it; until you realise that ‘referred on’ generally means sent to the voluntary sector for help, with no funds to provide that support and little, if any, link back into the statutory work programmes. For many people recovering from mental ill-health, the ‘Work Programme’ is simply a process that has to be endured with little hope it will find them worthwhile employment at the end.
The other half of our welfare system is designed to support and protect the most vulnerable. But does it?
Again, the system tries but falls down due to inflexible processes that fail to meet the needs of the people who rely on it. The assessment process forces people to reinforce and focus on their disability. Whilst working for a charity supporting people back into employment I’ve seen too many people who we’ve almost got into jobs only for a benefits review to trigger an increase in their anxiety. This then leads them to fearfully focus on their diagnosis and avoid stepping out of mental health services and back into independence. Conversely, I have seen people who have been relatively well experience an acute episode of mental illness yet be assessed as capable of work and their benefits frozen when they fail to attend interviews. The impact of this can be devastating.
Many people blame the politicians. At one time it was blaming the Brown administration for appointing ATOS to carry out assessments and later the coalition for continuing that contract until it finally came to an end last year. We hear that ‘Labour loves the workshy’ and that ‘Tory’s hate the unemployed’. In my opinion much of this is nonsense. I’ve never yet met a politician from any party who wanted to deliberately cause harm and this isn’t about politics or political dogma. It’s about short sighted failed procurement processes that favour the large multi-national service organisations and completely fail to understand the benefit local voluntary and community groups can bring.
So what do I want….?
I want to see a flexible, responsive system that takes a firm stance against fraud but bends and shapes to accommodate the needs of the vulnerable. I want to see a clearer separation between job seeking and support for the vulnerable and I want to see more decision making devolved to the front line so that those who work directly with an individual can prevent perverse decisions that cause so much harm and distress.
I want to see a new procurement model that puts the local voluntary and community sector at the heart of delivery and, most of all, I want to see a change in the rhetoric away from skivers and scroungers to enablers and life changers.
Take a chance Mr Duncan-Smith – we’re here, waiting and ready to make it happen.
Guest blog post by David Smith, Chief Executive of Hull and East Yorkshire MIND