It's been a tough old week for the welfare industry and DWP, in particular Chris Grayling who seems a wee bit cross. Cross that he's not getting his own way with naughty documentary makers who refuse to film what he tells them to, despite also being given a significant proportion of the same documentary to put across his own arguments. Naughty BBC not doing what a minister says. To be fair that must have come as quite the shock to the current incumbents at the DWP who've become far too relaxed about briefing the press with misleading statistics, being rapped on the knuckles for it, then doing it again and again and again.
The key moment in Spartacus report was when the DWP took to twitter to try and argue their case. This week has been equally explosive and equally telling as late last night Chris Grayling penned a Comment is Free piece, insisting despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that Work Capability Assessments can improve lives.
Unlike the DWP I'm not a fan of misinformation so it's time to put some facts straight. The DWP have been naughty enough to rack up a whole series of spankings from Nanny, but they did NOT decide to time yesterday's announcement that Atos had won the lion's share of the new PIP contracts in order to divert from information about the Evidence Based Review of the Work Capability Assessment that was announced by charities and campaigners yesterday morning. The timing of the EBR announcement was decided by myself and Sue Marsh in consultation with the charitable sector. I initially received the information about EBR several weeks ago, but neither Sue or I were comfortable breaking the news until we'd checked as many facts as we could. That took a while...bizarrely for a pair of sick and disabled people who rarely get out of our pyjamas we work at a speed the DWP and charitable sector find challenging to keep up with. Fact checking and getting people's agreement took days, so eventually we settled upon this monday to make the announcement. But, then realising both Panorama and Dispatches were scheduled for that day, we felt the news would be better later in the week. Also originally the PIP contractors were due to be announced earlier this week, that changed, presumably because G4S had been one of the preferred bidders and were so busy failing to 'secure our world' that the DWP had a bit of a wibble and wanted more time. They changed dates, we changed dates and the eventual announcements coincided. So, if we're sticking to conspiracy or cock up themes it was a cock up. Given that between us Sue and I take enough medication to sedate a shiny pink elephant, and often don't know what day it is...we make lots of these kinds of mistakes.
Having cleared that up, lets look at the other biggest rumour - financial targets. Financial targets remain just a rumour; though there may well be bonus clauses in the commercially confidential sections of the contract between DWP and Atos no-one knows if this is the case because no-one is allowed to see those sections of the contract. So, there is absolutely no proof that financial targets exist. There's also no proof that there's anything called targets in the contract, because Atos use a system of statistical norms, based on averages, based on forecasts. Regardless of intention using such a system will create targets and a target based culture, particularly for frontline workers fearing a punitive audit process every time they make a decision about whether someone can be defined as fit for work, fit for some form of future work or in need of unconditional support using the deliberately tight parameters set by the DWP. These are NOT financial targets, they are norms based on averages based on forecasts that have never been called targets but do exactly the same thing in practice.
Atos are an eagerly litigious company; I've written two articles within the last week about these norms that create targets, one on this blog and one for the Independent. Atos follow all the work campaigners do, so we can be confident making the assumption that their legal teams have scrutinised my work in detail, and of course the article for the Independent had to be cleared through their legal team. What does this mean? It means that if there was anything factually incorrect in my theory about targets that are really called norms it would have been picked up by two sets of lawyers and either I would have received a stroppy letter threatening legal action if I didn't correct the record....or has been the case, I would have heard nothing. Which means those two sets of legal teams couldn't find anything that was incorrect so we can safely presume that although there don't appear to be any financial targets there is a target system in operation which does not take account of any of the different disabilities or health conditions of those it assesses.
Where does that leave us? Well, it means that the Minister isn't technically lying when he swears there are no financial targets. But it also means that either he's as stupid as Atos and couldn't work out how statistics work* or he knows full well that these statistical norms lead to an effective target culture but isn't technically lying about it, just being even more flexible with how he presents the facts than my bendy joints are. I very much doubt Nanny would be happy with either, thus earning Grayling another spanking.
But, as is often the case with governments, the real issues are in what they are not saying. Chris Grayling uses his Guardian piece to talk about a woman he met with depression who despite being 'almost hysterical' was grateful for his work programme tough love, a common problem with politicians of all parties who are forever bumping into just one person whose life circumstances can be used to support the argument being made. This latest case doesn't feature a black Royal Navy sailor cited by David Cameron who would have had to have been about 12 when he joined up if Cameron's facts were correct, thus proving that his parents could have saved £30 grand a year on his private education as he can't add up any better than I can. Nor was it Ed Miliband's man on the doorstep who had a bad back but who Ed confidently declared as being able to work if he tried harder, showing that everyone's an amatuer disability analyst when they feel like it and about as good at making accurate judgements as Atos are. These three examples are all about reinforcing negative stereotypes with anecdotal stories people can easily relate to.
Are there people claiming sickness and disability benefits who could work with the right support? Of course there are, I am one of them, despite having significant disability and health problems. Would going on a work programme help me? Of course it wouldn't. As a writer I can probably manage to put together my own CV, search the internet for jobs and put in applications without going to a work provider to sit in their office doing exactly that. Of course, that presumes that anyone would let me in their office as part of the reason I lost my part time public sector admin job almost a decade ago was that I was a considered a health and safety risk. That's somewhat discriminatory, but to be fair to my employers...they had a point. Someone regularly dislocating and collapsing in work tends to be a bit stressful for all concerned, and we'll gloss over the time I had to be carried out of the hospital I worked in by paramedics to another hospital to be treated after having spent an indeterminable amount of time unconscious on the floor alone in an isolated office. But I'm sure now I've added in lots of morphine and some complex and at times life threatening breathing issues that the work programme providers and any employer will welcome me in with open arms as will their insurance providers.
What would help me and many other thousands of highly skilled sick and disabled people is for politicians to look at the situation more constructively. Work programmes are based on the assumption people need to be forced into work, and set to the lowest common denominator. Forcing highly skilled and often seriously disabled or ill people through this process is not just degrading and dehumanising it's also utterly pointless. There is currently no set up for people like me to be able to apply to have that work programme funding transferred to an employer to reduce some of their financial and commercial risks in employing me. I can't access funding to provide better equipment to enable me to work from home, or ask a work provider for a list of employers who'd like to hire a more diverse workforce and are willing to be flexible about how that operates in practice in order to benefit from the vast pool of untapped skill out there.
What would also help is a bit of common sense (yes, I know that is banned in Westminster) and acceptance that the current system is not working. It is demonising and devastating those the public perceive as deserving of support and proving so traumatic to go through that it is likely to move people further from the workplace not closer. There's also the fairly major not enough jobs to go around the not yet, disabled healthy workforce, but like all good politicians I'm going to gloss over that trivial obstacle.
Over the past two years sick and disabled people have tried desperately to expose the reality of our daily lives to an incredulous public. We've reported wheelchair users, including two gold medal winning paralympians being forced to crawl off trains, young disabled people unable to access workplaces or leisure spaces, not because they were unskilled or unqualified but because they couldn't access the social care and accessible housing they needed to be able to work. I've personally experienced a 4* central London hotel who's idea of access was to put wheelchair users on a pallet lift in the kitchen, been hit on the head by faulty equipment on a train, shut in a tradesman's cupboard and left there when asking for assistance at a major London station...oh and accidentally tipped out of my wheelchair in a spectacular enough fashion to stop central London traffic. And they are just the incidents I can immediately recall before the morning painkillers kick in. And I don't exactly get out alot. Tell me, would you feel confident about accessing the world on a daily basis if incidents like that were common place? No fibs now...Nanny is watching...
The answer is, no you wouldn't. But like me, you might still dream of and hope to work. You might as I do dream that employers would be encouraged to employ disabled people to work from home, using technology to empower our skills and be able to ascertain that work is actually being done. You might carry on hoping that you'll be able to fundraise and save for the vital mobility equipment the NHS can't afford to provide, you might dream of a social care package that actually supported your needs, or long term physiotherapy, counselling or whatever it is that you currently can't access that you know having would make the idea of working seem much more achieveable.
But you'd have to carry on dreaming, because all those things were scarce before the Coalition came to power, and are fast becoming almost mythical. You might dream about politicians who tackle these challenges and barriers head on, who ask sick and disabled people to advise them on how this might be possible. You might hope that politicians would understand forcing people down a pathway to full time work is foolish and preventative when instead they could value contribution and recognise that part time paid or self directed voluntary work is a much more sensible aim.
But you'll just have to carry on dreaming, while the Minister carries on repeating himself. Work is good. Benefits claimants are lazy. Jobs are plentiful. And perhaps, if you had the chance, if you dared to ask these politicians how you are supposed to fit within this rigid failing system you'd see and hear their damning response.
A confused look and the assurance that they really, really don't mean people like you.
But they really do mean people just like me, and although they don't mean it, its people just like me who are absorbing the negative and prejudicial attitudes emerging from politicians through the media. I doubt they mean it to frighten us or to increase the barriers to wider society or the workplace, but that's what happens when you base policy on "I don't mean people like you".
So to the Minister, I am exactly one of those people and like many campaigners I'm full of positive ideas to improve disabled people's career prospects. If that is actually the aim of the government, to Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith I say, pick up the phone, have the grace to do as Ed Miliband did when challenged over the issue, close your mouths and open your ears. You might be awfully surprised and pleased by what you hear...
*which lets face it, given that I start crying if numbers over 100 are introduced means you have to be pretty seriously stupid to not understand this.