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Readers of this blog will know there is no love lost between Vox Political and Liam Byrne. He’s a Tory in Labour shoes, and a frightening symptom of the malaise gripping what used to be a “democratic socialist” political party.
However, his speech on Wednesday seems to indicate that Labour policy on social security for the disabled is turning a corner – away from the pseudo-Tory murderous nonsense of recent years (decades?) and towards something slightly more sensible.
There’s a lot of waffle and a lot of political flannel – you don’t want to read about Ed Miliband saying how “a One Nation Labour government will reform social security so that once again it works for working people” – that doesn’t mean anything at all.
And he’s still banging on about “work for everyone who can work… That’s how we start to bring welfare spending under control” without acknowledging that people with disabilities who can work, already do – or do their best in an environment where the Tory-led government keeps shutting down their factories. Support to make sure they can continue to earn the living that gives them their continued self-esteem is vital. Also vital is support for people who genuinely can’t work, but are being victimised by the current government, as they were by the Labour government that went before.
He rightly points out that the Work Programme is failing and suggests a new arrangement between the government, private employers, the voluntary sector and local authorities, “like they do in Germany”. Good idea. Maybe this time, when the DWP signs people who are on the Work Programme off-benefit, they’ll actually be receiving a proper wage, rather than working full-time for the same pitiful amount of benefits as before.
And he delivers five principles that, he says, should guide Labour’s thinking on employment for disabled people:
“Principle 1: A personal plan for support, including employment – Rather than separate services treating different bits of a person, we should provide a single service to meet all of a person’s care needs. This means health and social care, mental health and employment services working together.
“Principle 2: Local partnerships – We should create local partnerships between the DWP, specifically the DWP’s Pensions, Disability & Carers’ Service, Social Care, the NHS, Local Enterprise Partnerships, emerging City Deals (Scope) and disability organisations.
“Principle 3: “Tell us once” approach to assessments – Everyone agrees that assessments are necessary to make sure people get the help and support they need, but the last thing anyone wants to do is fill out time-consuming forms, or take a series of tests unless they are absolutely necessary. We will look at introducing assessments which dovetail together to gauge eligibility and need in the quickest and most efficient way possible. This could include assessments for employment, health and social support needs as well as benefit entitlement.
“Principle 4: Empowering approach to assessments – So Labour will also look at reforming tests so that they identify the help disabled people actually need to achieve economic well-being and independent living, rather than a simple assessment of conditions.
“Principle 5: Root and branch review of employment support programmes for disabled people offered though a personal budget – To simplify the employment support system, improve targeting and give disabled people choice over the type of support they receive, we will look at rolling disability employment programmes into one individual budget-based programme. This could be contracted locally with the budget pooled with other services. This could build on Andy Burnham’s Whole Person Care approach and the Right to Control pilots, and would give individuals greater choice over the support that they most need.”
For me, the approach is still far too close to “Your disability is all in your mind and you can work if we tell you to” – but at least he seems to be accepting that there are faults in the current system, and that more people are genuinely unable to work than the current government accepts.
He’s still nobody’s choice to speak for the disabled in Parliament (I’d nominate Michael Meacher, but then he’s everyone’s darling at the moment) – but at least he’s starting to improve.
If we can get the current disability death statistics from Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP, this might help push Byrne further towards sanity – or Labour towards replacing him with a genuinely sympathetic Work and Pensions spokesman.
Meanwhile, the Tories who are currently in charge at the DWP are sending their press officers on a statistics course after a series of complaints about its figures – despite the fact that we know the politicians were responsible for the cock-ups and misinterpretations, not the officials.
They keep trying to cover up their own mistakes by blaming someone else and thinking we won’t notice, but we always do.