SIR BERT MASSIE BLOG
TO ASK a disabled person whether they should be entitled to be disabled sounds like a daft question. Nonetheless, it is a question being asked in government circles and the answer is likely to be a resounding no.
When the Work Capacity Test was being devised it was based on a concept devised by American insurance companies and introduced into the UK through a number of reports written for the Department for Work and Pensions.
A major report – The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits – argued that many people claiming incapacity benefit did not have a disability that could be verified by medical science.
Examples of such disabilities were back pain and stress as, it was argued, all the DWP had to rely on was the self-assessment of the person. This does not mean that the person is not disabled but that sufficient evidence is not available.
The report also argued that many such conditions were treatable and curable and were therefore not long-term impairments. With the right medical interventions the person could be helped back to work and off benefits.
The extension of this logic is that the country has a duty to support people who are unable to work for reasons beyond their control. If that reason is related to a disability that could be cured, but the person refuses the treatment, should they lose their right to disability benefits when the country is prepared to meet the cost of the treatment?
Does that mean they are disabled by choice and the country has no obligation to support them? These questions are now being asked.
In February the Prime Minister invited Dame Carol Black to report on whether people who are obese or alcoholic should have their benefit cut if they refuse treatment. Her report is awaited but whatever it says it will be controversial.
For example, alcoholism can be a consequence of mental health problems. If somebody is mentally ill and, as a consequence, declines treatment, will treatment be forced upon them? If not, will their benefits be cut as a sanction? How are we to judge whether a person is cured? Could this approach be extended to people with other types of mental health issues?
In recent years much of the media has depicted disabled people receiving benefits as scroungers. Attempts to force disabled people to undergo “cures” opens a new can of worms.
If the policy is implemented there must first be long and detailed negotiations with disability organisations to ensure that people who have no choice but to live with an impairment are not wrongly penalised. We would also need assurance that medical science is capable of “curing” people and, if it is, will it be adequately resourced.
We would need to discuss whether forcing people to have medical treatment would be an abuse of their human rights. However the Government proceeds, it must be with huge caution because the dangers of such a policy are worrying and profound.
Access to work-or not
THE Access to Work scheme has been a secret success of successive governments. It predates most disability legislation and was introduced to enable employers to meet additional one of costs incurred when employing a disabled person.
If an employee needed, for example, a desk to be modified or a special piece of software so they could use their computer the employer could apply for a grant from the DWP.
If a wheelchair user has a manual wheelchair from the NHS but needs a powered wheelchair at work the Access to Work Scheme will help to buy it.
In recent years the scheme evolved to include longer-term assistance for disabled people. For example, blind people can use the scheme to employ a “reader” for part of each day. Deaf people can apply for funding to employ a sign language interpreter.
Government figures indicate it is a cost effective scheme because for every pound spent more than that is contributed in taxes. However, this is splendid scheme is under threat.
The Government is considering limiting significantly the amount that deaf people can receive to employ sign language interpreters. The objective is to save money. The logic is that since 1995 employers have had a duty to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled employees. As employers have such a duty it is inappropriate for government to also fund such adjustments.
There are several faults with this reasoning.
The first is that employers are required only to make “reasonable” adjustments and there is no mathematical way of calculating what is reasonable. Ultimately, it will be decided in an Employment Tribunal, which are too expensive for many disabled people. However, even if an employer is happy to make a one-off payment, fewer employers will be willing to meet the on-going costs of sign interpreters or readers for blind people.
Moreover, a growing number of disabled people work for themselves and are only able to do so because of the support of Access to Work. If these proposals are pursued they could result in many hard-working disabled people no longer being able to work. That will be the reverse of what the Government claims to believe in.
Twenty years on . . .
1995 was one of the most significant years in the history of disabled people.
After 14 years of battles both within and out side Parliament the Government finally passed the Disability Discrimination Act.
Its provisions were later extended and incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. It was this legislation that gave disabled people extra rights relating to employment and unlike the old quota scheme, whereby large employers were required to ensure 3% of the workforce were disabled, there was an enforcement mechanism.
The Act gave disabled people access to cinemas, theatres, restaurants and shops. The public transport system became increasingly accessible.
Between 2000-2007 the Disability Rights Commission brought ground breaking legal cases that clarified and extended the Act. It then became part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which over the years has had its budget increasingly reduced so although it has a much wider range of responsibilities than the DRC it has much the same budget.
As a consequence, enforcement of the rights of disabled people is not as strong as it was. Changes to Legal Aid make it more difficult for disabled people who are not wealthy to assert their rights through the judicial system.
The DDA was invariably and necessarily grounded in the time in which it was written and passed by Parliament. Today some of the issues facing disabled people are very similar to those of 20 years ago but each year new problems and issues emerge.
If we had a new DDA today, what would we like it to achieve? What issues do disabled people face that are different from those in 1995?
For example, in 1995 there was pressure to close special schools. Today, some parents are calling for them to be opened, particularly for people who are autistic.
As the world changes, so legislation protecting disabled people needs to be constantly reviewed and, if necessary, improved. What would you like to see changed?