The Department for Work and Pensions has turned down some innovative proposals from its own advisory body, the Social Security Advisory Committee, to give disabled people more say in the benefit system.
The response to a report from the committee made over a year ago came in the last few days of the Parliament with an explanation from Chloe Smith, the minister.
Not only does her reply do an injustice to disabled people but heavily reflects the corporate approach inside the ministry which in my view, does not treat people claiming benefits as independent human beings who might have something to contribute to the running of the service.
Having a protocol for engagement is ” bureaucratic “
Typical of today’s government responses Chloe Smith cherry picks parts of the report which fit in with DWP’s grand corporate plan to digitalise everything – while ignoring other more challenging proposals to help the disabled.
The SSAC report- full details here – suggests the government should formalise engagement procedures with disabled people – giving them a chance to put their own views into how the benefit system could help them. The government rejects this as ” bureaucratic” while claiming it engages in meaningful discussions. The problem with this is that the government chooses what it wants to consult about and ignores issues it doesn’t.
The second recommendation was that the ministry should provide regular updates on its engagement with disabled people. The ministry rejects this on the grounds it already provides details of quarterly ministerial meetings with who attended under existing transparency rules ( I wonder how many disabled people search this out ). It certainly doesn’t want this extended to officials using the rather curious argument that “we need to recognise that some stakeholders or users may not want to be identified as having worked with the Department and we do not want to compromise open and honest dialogue.”
Really? Given the ministry publish the people who attend ministerial meetings on the disabled this seems rather contradictory.
A panel for disabled people ” not value for money”
The third rejected recommendation is a proposal to recruit some representative disabled people who experience the benefit system to act as a panel to raise issues. The Department responded:
“Creating and maintaining a representative panel across all disability benefits is unlikely to offer value for money as it would require continuous oversight and recruitment. Given the wide range of policies the Department is responsible for, which will be of interest to different groups in society, we think having the flexibility to tailor our engagement will lead to more meaningful insight than using a standing panel. Any findings from such a panel would only be indicative and could not be used for robust evaluation to assess the impact or effect of any single policy intervention.”
The ministry did accept the fourth recommendation – the use of accessible technology – which would allow video interviews between staff and claimants – and is being trialled for Universal Credit . But that fits in with its modernisation plan.
It went on to reject a proposal to include a clause insisting on how private contractors – which do a lot of work for the DWP in assessments and interviews for disabled people – should engage with disabled people. This is a controversial issue – the Northern Ireland Ombudsman is currently investigating allegations of bad practice by contractors assessing people for benefits. But the department claims to include it would be subject to legal challenge by contractors during the bidding process for the work. Frankly if the private firms don’t want this if they want to do this type of work, it suggests to me their motives for doing the job are questionable.
The ministry also accepted a recommendation that its services should be more accessible for disabled people – and listed achievements in that area – again in line with their corporate plan.
Finally the ministry half accepted a recommendation for more leadership inside the department to enable disabled people and other claimants to have greater input but rejected appointing a non executive director to co-ordinate such a process. Instead it said it should be Chloe Smith, the present minister should do this as part of her job.
Minister’s complacent response
The covering letter from the minister said: “I am pleased to see the progress we have made in engaging with disabled people recognised in the Committee’s report. I share the Committee’s view on the importance of keeping the voices of disabled people at the heart of health and disability policy development and delivery. However, I do not agree with several of the Committee’s recommendations because I believe that we can achieve the outcomes of sustained, meaningful engagement with disabled people in ways other than those identified in the report.”
In my view the report reflects the current complacency and culture in the ministry – shown by the lack of engagement in the past over the raising of the pension age for 1950s women and the management’s top down attitude in not wanting to engage directly with pensioners, mainly women, who have been underpaid their pensions.
Incidently, in researching Chloe Smith for this article I came across a rather extraordinary story about her marriage partner, Sandy MacFadzean, a financial consultant. In September 2020 he dismissed those suffering from Covid 19 as having a ” mental illness”. He held such strong views that he went on a march run by Piers Corbyn when gatherings of more than 30 people were banned and retweeted a poster for it on his now closed Twitter account condemning social distancing, wearing face masks and opposing the mass vaccination of the population. The story was picked up by the Eastern Daily Press.
The minister defended his right to freedom of speech but said she disagreed with his stance. The discussions in their household must have been fascinating during the long pandemic.
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