Jul 312012

Two UK TV programmes this week have presented problems with the new approach to sickness and disability benefits. (Channel 4 “Britain on the Sick” and BBC2 “Panorama: Disabled or Faking it?”)

Both programmes used anecdotes and under-cover investigation to make their points that there are flaws with the new system. And there do appear to be flaws. But are these flaws of philosophy/policy or flaws of implementation? I think they are primarily flaws of motivation and implementation, not of philosophy.

First, some statistics presented as criticism by Channel 4 about the assessments performed by Atos, the private-sector contractor used for the basic assessment of whether a person could in principle work:

“2 out of 5 decisions by Atos are appealed, and almost a third of appeals are successful.”

Or put another way (but not by Channel 4) using the same figures:

“13 out of 15 decisions by Atos are not successfully appealed.”

Some of the anecdotes revealed appalling errors or lack of empathy. Whatever subject is being discussed, it will always be possible to find such anecdotes. We live in an imperfect world where we (“society”, but I’ll accept a tiny bit of the blame) let down some people and even kill them. We imprison innocent people because of an imperfect Criminal Justice system and we let people die of dehydration in hospitals because of an imperfect NHS. (And, across the planet, every minute 18 children die). We have to work to improve things, not throw our hands up in despair or pretend there is a perfect solution that we could rapidly implement if we gave up our current systems.

Soon the Paralympics will begin, and show us what people who have disabilities that make many us cringe can actually do, putting the rest of us to shame.

During my career, my colleagues included people with vastly more serious disabilities than most of those shown on the programmes. One young man working for me had severe progressive arthritis. One young woman was working while really in denial about the extent of her disabilities, and one night died, unexpected by the rest of us. None had been coerced to work, but chose to do so in defiance of their disabilities. A characteristic of all of these people is that they had abilities that they could exploit. They were “knowledge workers”. One of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists can barely move any muscle but has greatly advanced our knowledge of the universe.

Two things are implied:

1. A somewhat one-dimensional test like the Atos test will often miss the point: people may need extra abilities to compensate for what they can’t do. Stephen Hawking would struggle to have meaningful work if he didn’t have his enviable brain. If he had average intelligence he would realistically have to be in the “can’t get a job” category. The ability to have a meaningful job involves some multi-dimensional “envelope” of capability.

2. Motivation is (nearly) everything. My disabled (for want of a better word) colleagues were motivated to achieve in spite of their problems. They could see the point. Although I think the UK government actually knows this, the message is sometimes lost by others who don’t see the point.

My young colleague who had severe arthritis needed lots of mobility help. Perhaps that would nowadays cost more than keeping him on benefits. But it would be worth it. As a taxpayer, I am not after the cheapest solution, but the right solution. If it costs more to keep a motivated person in work than it would cost to keep them on benefits, so be it. And if it costs money to motivate someone, so be it.

Let’s reject this contemptible argument against revising the benefits system: “there aren’t jobs available, so it is wrong to move people from a sickness benefit to Job Seeker’s Allowance”. That devalues those sickness benefits and demotivates us from tackling unemployment. It says “let’s just give up trying to achieve the right result for everyone”.

There is a (largely true) view that taxpayers object to people wrongly claiming benefits rather than working. But there are two objections to those people: the first is that they get money they shouldn’t; and the second is that they have free time that they shouldn’t. The typical media and government emphasis is on the first, but I am more concerned about the second. Whether they are simply couch-potatoes, or are (like many) working in the “unofficial economy”, I don’t want it. If they are claiming out-of-work benefits I want them spending their time doing something, preferably something useful. “Workfare” isn’t a term of abuse to me, is a common-sense technique.

Our vision for sick and disabled people should be to prevent those conditions if possible, otherwise to cure them if possible, otherwise to provide technology and other support so that they can contribute if possible, and only if all else fails pay them to compensate for their inability to contribute and obtain rewards. Writing them off may sometimes be necessary, but should be accepted as a failure of society that must be addressed in future.

(Disclaimer: I am able-bodied.
I lost my job years ago and lived just on my private pension and savings until recently when I became 65.
I now receive my state pension, which is less than the total amount of tax I pay to central government).

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