Being classed as ‘able’ or ‘unable’ to work is almost irrelevant if you’re still seen as a potential liability to employers.
Campaigning on getting people ‘off benefits and into work’ is not radical, and it’s certainly not a ‘tough decision.’ It’s the ultimate political safeground. Who could argue with it? The idea of anyone being trapped in a cycle of dependency on the state is grim and depressing; for the dependents themselves as well as everybody else, surely? I’m not sure if even the most rabid socialists I know like to see people dependent on the state. (And I know some extremely rabid socialists.) Tightening up the criteria which qualifies a citizen for an out of work benefit, or even a benefit like Disability Living Allowance, which just helps cover the inevitable cost of living with a disability, is not something to be automatically dismissed as a cruel policy – although it certainly deserves much heavier, more expert, more medical-based scrutiny than it’s getting at present.
But just saying that people should ‘support themselves’ and be ‘self-sufficient’, and that ‘work should pay’ is about as meaningful as saying ‘it would be nice if there were no wars or murders.’ Well, it would be. But there are quite a few problems with getting there.
And the biggest problem with moving more people off state support in the hope of driving them into work faster, based on the (largely correct) assumption that most claimants do actually want to work, is this: it is a solution which considers the desires of state, and of the claimant. The potential employer, a pretty important part of the triangle, is completely absent from the equation.
The job market is an uphill ice slope right now, even for people who’ve consistently stayed in long-term employment, have great qualifications, and who generally have no particular hindrances to a normal working life.
According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 2.49million unemployed in Britain. There are 466,000 vacancies. Assuming that all of these jobs are suitable for all of the candidates, which of course they’re not, that still leaves employers with rather a lot of applicants for each position.
Employers are not just going to pick the ‘best’ candidate for every job. They are usually going to pick the easiest, most cost efficient, most likeable, most experienced, most low maintenance person for every job – and rightly so. We shouldn’t force them to do otherwise (and let’s face it, the Conservatives are probably more likely to declare French as the national language than pass any laws to bind employers in terms of who they can and can’t hire or fire). But where does that leave the people who just can’t compete?
For example if an individual suffers from clinical depression, and is able to get through the day without killing themselves, is physically able and can talk, type, stack or carry, their assessor may well deduce – accurately – that such a candidate could reasonably manage a job in, say, a bookshop, a warehouse, or an office. But how much chance will they have of excelling in an interview against outgoing, confident, super-happy candidates with no unexplained breaks in their CV, explanatory notes from the doctor, scars on their wrists, or blue bags around their eyes? The system of assessing ability to work, in short, is not taking into account the realities of the job market, and whether it is practical , in the real world, that you be expected to find work.
With so much emphasis on getting people back into work – a great idea that we pretty much all applaud – perhaps there should be just a little bit more of a conversation about how to help and incentivise employers in accommodating varying states of disability? Could there not be greater discussion about the stigmatisation of mental health in the workplace, and during the recruitment process, for example? Could employers, sometimes shamefully ignorant in their assumptions about who and who isn’t employable, perhaps be asked to take some small share in the responsibility for why so many people who ‘could’ work are stuck on JSA?
Yes, it would be great if no-one had to be dependent on the state, just like yes, it would be great if there were no wars or murders. It would be great if we could get that to happen without asking employers to ever compromise on their own independent selection processes, or without hurting anyone vulnerable, or without spending any money. But we can’t. Dogmatic removal of government because we don’t like the size of the state, without taking any responsibility for replacing its nobler and more necessary activities – like supporting the sick and the vulnerable – is just as naive as being a left-wing hippy who thinks it would be nice if there were no wars (and surely far more damaging). I believe in giving people a ‘hand up instead of a hand out’ (to quote the last of the annoying platitudes). But when you give someone a hand up, it’s only fair to make sure there’s actually somewhere for them to land at the top once you let go, isn’t it?