This Monday saw a collective exhale as the long awaited Disability, Work and Health Green Paper was published.
At over 90 pages, it is a lengthy tome that sets out wide-reaching and welcome reforms to supporting those with disability and health conditions into work. Particularly welcome initiatives include the commitment to reform the Work Capability Assessment and plans for supportive networks to build capacity in SMEs to employ disabled workers.
The Green Paper also clearly reiterates the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap – a pledge that originated in the government’s 2015 General Election manifesto and which would, if met, see over a million more disabled people in work. This is a great ambition, which ERSA fully supports – after all there are thought to be around 3.8 million people with disabilities out of work, around 1.3 million of whom it is thought could work and want to work.
To make this pledge reality is going to need a cultural step change which no country has yet achieved. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try. We absolutely must for moral as well as economic reasons. However, there is real concern that, as well as influencing business behaviour, the Government also has to invest in high quality specialist employment support.
Last Monday, ERSA published More than Words, an independent report by WPI Economics which found that the proposed 80% reduction in funding for the new Work and Health Programme, means that 45,000 fewer disabled people will access specialist employment support in every remaining year of this parliament. The report shows that the reduction in funding – from £750 million in 2013/14 to less than £130 million next year – means that while 300,000 disabled people accessed contracted support between 2012-2015, this will fall to just 160,000 disabled people from 2017 to 2020.
Not only does this dramatic reduction in resources fail to tally with the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap, but it makes no business sense. Our research shows that doubling the size of the Work and Health Programme (still a significant reduction on current spending), is likely to result in net £280 million savings to the Chancellor.
But not all is lost. The Autumn Statement on 23 November gives the government an opportunity to match its ambition and rhetoric with action. In addition, we could use the ESF money we still have as a country to boost spending. We also need to take advantage of the opportunities devolution can bring. Some areas of the country – such as Greater Manchester – are steaming ahead with the opportunity to deliver joined-up and place-based solutions for services such as employment support and social care, but we need such areas to be given the opportunity to integrate services and pool budgets and that means central government handing over the reins of power.
So, there is hope and there is opportunity. The Green Paper is hugely welcome, but we need to ensure that we match words and ambitions with resource. Otherwise, we’ll be having the same conversation in ten years time.
Kirsty McHugh is Chief Executive of ERSA