Review: Panorama – The Great Disability Scam?

Tue, 29/01/2013 - 11:36 -- nick

BBC One’s Panorama strand asked a burning question last night – why is the Work Programme failing disabled unemployed people so badly?

Redeeming itself somewhat for its appalling coverage of these issues in its daytime Saints and Scroungers broadcasts, the BBC showed the Work Programme has problems running right through it, from design to delivery, and from staff to management and training.

UnemployedNet has written before about the Work Programme’s poor performance – it takes some doing to provide support to the unemployed which makes them less likely to get work – and Panorama’s achievement was in providing concrete reasons why this might be happening when previous coverage of the issue has not.

Using the testimony of whistleblowers, disabled jobseekers and others, it showed that there exists a lack of basic respect for the unemployed in some delivery organisations, that those who are hardest to help have not been supported as expected, and reports on the findings of a survey of providers.

This survey shows that many training and support providers are unhappy with the scheme and do not believe it is working properly: 40% of those listed by the government as Work Programme providers say that they are not part of it, while another 40% had not had a single person referred for support and 77% believed they had not had their expertise used properly.

One Aberdeen firm, Triage, referred in a training session to the people they were supposed to help as LTBs - code for "lying, thieving bastards", while staff were told to give only minimal support to those - often disabled - clients it deemed hard to get in to work.

Interviewing disabled people on their experiences helped to achieve something important: showing viewers that newspaper rhetoric on benefit scroungers and spongers disguises real and common stories of human suffering. Ruth, a 27 year old woman with learning disabilities and epilepsy, couldn’t make a cup of tea but had been found fit for work and was sucked in to the unsuitable orbit of the Work Programme.  

The transformative power of work was well depicted through the story of Andrew Collins, a man who had experienced both homelessness and long-term depression. Now working, and smiling, in his care home job, his was a rare story of success which pointed up the importance of failures elsewhere.

Behind the human stories and exposes of bad practice, the Work Programme uses a financial system that encourages a certain kind of thinking. There were good reasons for the move to payment by results – providing incentives to providers to achieve the outcomes that are important to unemployed people, particularly jobs, helps to focus them on the work they should be doing.

But if payment by results, and the associated move to contracting with big companies that are overwhelmingly private sector and profit-based, has meant simply that each person who walks through a provider’s door has a price tag on them, it cannot work to the benefit of all.

It also makes the kind of contempt which leads to a provider calling clients “lying, thieving bastards”, or simply ignoring them, more likely; the profit motive may have replaced the support motive in some companies, dehumanising the process. The current economic downturn, which has made jobs rare in many regions of the UK in which the Work Programme operates, is unlikely to have helped this.

Mark Hoban, the employment minister, was asked whether parking and creaming – helping only those with the best immediate prospects of getting work while giving little attention to the hard-to-help – was taking place. He suggested that anyone worried about this should contact the independent case examiner (ICE) to ask them to look at their case, raising the spectre of telephone calls in which clients of providers complain of being parked or creamed. An unsavoury prospect, and not really what the kind of case the ICE was set up to resolve.

Hoban believed strongly that the right incentives were in place to ensure those who were furthest from the labour market were viable economic propositions for providers. So far, the Work Programme has found jobs for only 3.5% of its clients, but this drops to 1.5% for those on Employment and Support Allowance, the group that includes the disabled and sick people featured by Panorama.

It is expected that those with the greatest barriers find it hardest to get work, and still-greater incentives, in the form of higher payments to companies for getting disabled and long term sick people in to work, might encourage more work with these groups.

But if the revenue model is encouraging the dehumanising of clients that Panorama found, more money might actively work against the kind of support needed if disabled and long term sick people are to stop being parked and start being, not creamed, but properly helped.

Work helps to structure life, makes employees feel part of something valuable, builds self-esteem, friendships, networks and life skills. Its potential value to disabled people, particularly those with mental health illnesses that can isolate them from society, is huge, and many want to work even where doing so challenges them greatly.

On the evidence of Panorama, the Work Programme is not the place to go for help with this.

Read the BBC's article on the programme

Watch Panorama