Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

In August, Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech regarding disability benefits and fitness for work. It was noticeable in its new emphasis on focusing on what people can do when it comes to work, not what they can’t. This means, he pointed out, a shift from a binary fit/unfit approach to disability benefits, to one which more readily allows some work, based on one’s capacity, and working with employers, and a “can do” approach to fitness to work.

All this isn’t new. Policy wonks familiar with social care know this as the “asset based” rather than “deficit based” approach to care and support. It means focusing on what a disabled person can do, what they want to achieve, and then identifying ways of overcoming the barriers to this. It is recognised as the best approach to providing a form of support that develops independence, rather than encouraging being “done to” and passivity.

Applying this pro-active approach to benefits assessment can only be welcomed – a thorough rethink of ESA is a long time coming.

What if IDS went further? What if he took the asset based, social care approach to ESA reform beyond the WCA phase, to its natural conclusion?

In social care, many disabled and older people help develop their own care plan, setting out the outcomes they hope to achieve and how they can achieve them. Their local authority then assesses how much money, in the form of a personal budget, it will take to fulfil the care plan and the individual in question can spend that budget accordingly.

The potential parallels between this process and the welfare to work regime are obvious. Both involve a support plan and an allocation of cash, but when it comes to welfare to work, the two are currently disjointed. The eligibility assessment for ESA and the assessment to develop a work plan are entirely separate, carried out at different times by different people and, most importantly, are not mutually reinforcing – a disabled person who is unemployed will not necessarily spend their ESA on fulfilling their work plan, but rather use it to support themselves during their unemployment.

But what if, upon a single assessment, an individual was helped to develop a “welfare to work plan”, and given a personal budget – composing of money to live (the current ESA) at a fixed amount, and a variable amount of money based on the range of barriers they face in implementing their work plan? Disabled people could take this to Work Programme and other relevant support providers to help them get back to the workplace, bringing new choice and competition into a system.

It’s an idea that has been raised before, but no one yet has joined the dots between the assessment and the allocation of this cash. It would require an assessment of incapacity and employability in a single assessment, a ‘real world’ test which remains a point of contention for the DWP, as well as the addition of support planning tacked on after the eligibility phase.
Recent research published by Demos has found, in fact, that no other country combine these “eligibility” and “diagnostic” tests. But then again, none use personal budgets. A personal budget could act as a tool to marry the two by bringing together the “how” and “how much” – so that an assessment of incapacity and employability coexists, creating both an employment plan and a corresponding budget to carry it out. It would move from a binary question of eligibility to a sliding scale based directly to the amount of support needed. 

The main difference between this and the current approach is not that it is more generous, but rather more efficient – by combining and rationalising two disparate stages of assessment. It could also empower disabled people in the process of assessing their employability and enabling them to take charge of their journey back to the workplace – an asset based approach if ever there was one.

By Claudia Wood, Chief Executive, DEMOS