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Welfare reform in the United Kingdom and what it could mean for us in New Zealand

In light of the Minister’s comments last week, the Policy and Advocacy Team takes a detailed look at welfare reform in the United Kingdom. The team finds that welfare reform there is based on a faulty model of disability, has inflicted considerable hardship on people and has damaged the relationship between the disability community and government.

Appropriate paid employment can make a real difference to people’s lives. In research we carried out in 2003, the people involved identified ‘the ability to obtain meaningful employment’ as being very important to them (Contact Sam if you want a copy of the research).  The government can help people access appropriate paid employment by providing support and systematically removing the barriers society creates. To be effective, support needs to be based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Social Model of Disability.

Last week, the Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, delivered a speech on the direction of welfare reform in New Zealand. In this address to medical professionals, the Minister talked about the proposed assessment process for people on the new Supported Living Payment, stating:

“It also echoes the UK’s assessment processes and the “Pathways to Work” initiative for vocational rehabilitation designed by Professor Sir Mansel Aylward.”

The Minister mentioned she had been talking to Sir Aylward about welfare reform and indicated that the changes will be based on his thinking.

The Minister was talking about the work capability assessment done in the United Kingdom. These assessments are partially based on the work of Sir Aylward and carried out by a multinational private company, Atos. The assessments have been very controversial within the disability community with protestors saying the tests are ‘damaging and distressing’ and have led to suicides. Senior Jobcentre executives (Jobcentre is similar to Work and Income here) have warned staff that the mishandling of claims could lead to attempted suicides.

Spartacus, a disabled-person-led research organisation, produced the Responsible Reform Report on the reforms in the United Kingdom. The report found that 74% of people who participated in the government consultation on welfare reform were against the reforms; 19% had mixed views and only 7% supported it fully. There have also been heated parliamentary debates about Atos and the assessment process (the debate starts in the link at 11am).

A large number of people have appealed their assessment. 41% of those found fit for work appealed the decision and out of that 41%, 38% had their appeal upheld. For people using the support of professional advocacy groups, the appeal success rate is closer to 70%. There has been a large backlog of appeals as tribunals are unable to cope with demand. People are on a lower rate of benefit during the appeal process. Appeals also cost the Government £42.2 million pounds in 2010/11. Many people believe the high rate of appeals indicates major problems with the assessment system.

It has been difficult to hold anyone accountable for the assessments. Atos stresses that it just carries out assessments and that Jobcentre Plus staff make the decisions. Professor Malcolm Harrington in his first Independent Review, however, found that Jobcentre Plus staff do not in practice make decisions, but instead they typically ‘rubber stamp’ the advice provided through the Atos assessment.

Given all this, we have grave concerns about basing welfare changes in New Zealand on such a flawed approach.
The Atos assessment process and the work of Sir Aylward is driven by a model of disability known as the bio-psychosocial model. The bio-psychosocial model was  developed by psychiatrists in the 1970s. The model says that biological, psychological and social factors must be all taken into account to manage a person’s health and provide treatment.

Sir Aylward emphasises that psychosocial factors, such as an individual’s lifestyle and social circumstances, are the dominant barriers to a successful return to work. Sir Aylward sees a major role for health professionals in intervening to help an individual overcome their obstacles to work. Sir Aylward states that health professionals need to use cognitive and educational interventions to change a person’s beliefs about their injury and teach them self-management and independence. Sir Aylward is the Director of the Centre for Psychosocial & Disability Research, which is funded largely by Unum, a large multinational disability insurance company.

Disability organisations, particularly disabled persons’ organisations, have been deeply critical of the bio-psychosocial model. Most disability organisations, including us, use the Social Model of Disability. The New Zealand Disability Strategy and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also use the Social Model.

The Social Model recognises that people have impairments, but focuses on the role society plays in creating disability. In the Social Model, disability is discrimination imposed upon people with impairments. Disability is not what you have, but what you experience in society.

The Social Model would state that the barriers to employment are primarily created by society, such as the;

• attitudes of employers and fellow workers;
• availability of suitable jobs in the local economy;
• ability to make adjustments to the work place;
• availability of flexible hours;  
• availability of formal and informal support networks;
• a person’s access to education and work experience;
• lack of accessible transport options and;
• an inaccessible built environment.

The Minister’s speech did not really address ways to remove these barriers or genuine ways to create paid employment opportunities for disabled people.

The Social Model was developed primarily by disabled activists and academics. It was a reaction to the medical model of disability. Under the medical model, disabled people felt dominated by medical professionals who made all the important decisions. The Social Model played a key role in the move away from medical model institutions to community living. The Social Model emphasises that disabled people are the experts about their own lives.

By comparison, the bio-psychosocial model is primarily advocated for by health professions. Sir Aylward is a public health physician and Professor Malcolm Harrington, who was appointed to independently review the assessment process in the United Kingdom, is an occupational health physician. The Social Development Minister in her speech mentioned a number of experts, Sir Aylward, Dr Debra Dunstan (a Clinical Psychologist), and Dame Carol (a physician, who is also linked to the welfare reform process in the United Kingdom). The only disabled persons mentioned in her speech were Sophie Pascoe, who she held up as an example of what is possible; and an unidentified 19 year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who in the view of his Mum needed a ‘kick up the bum by Work and Income’.

The Responsible Reform Report states that successful welfare reform requires the Government to listen to the people it will affect and consider a wide range of evidence with an open mind. The proposed move to a bio-psychosocial model and Atos-style assessments, indicates that the Government is not listening to disabled people and their allies. Instead the process appears to be driven by medical experts promoting the bio-psychosocial model.

What we really need is for the Government to listen to the voices of disabled people and their allies, provide the support they need and address the barriers they identify. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be happening. On the same day the Minister’s speech was posted; the Mainstream Employment Programme announced that new placements would be stopped for this year because of too much demand. If the Government is serious about getting people appropriate employment, it needs to invest in the proper supports to address the barriers people face.

The welfare reform process in the United Kingdom has created a very negative climate for disabled people and their families. The tabloids are full of stories of alleged benefit cheats, with British newspaper, the Sun, saying it is ‘declaring war on feckless benefits claimants’. The Sun also claimed to have the support of the Government for its campaign. Reporting of disability hate crime has substantially increased.

The Responsible Reform Report says that due to welfare reform in the United Kingdom there is now a terrible “Trust Deficit” between Government and disabled people. We do not want to see New Zealand go down the same path as the United Kingdom. The New Zealand Government has the chance to do something much better and actually address the real barriers to paid employment. To bring about real change however, the Government needs to listen to the people most affected, not just overseas medical experts.

What are you thoughts?

Peter Wilson
Policy and Advocacy Team

Research and drafting
Sam Murray
Policy and Advocacy Team

15 Responses to “Welfare reform in the United Kingdom and what it could mean for us in New Zealand”

  1. Soo Graham says:

    Its ridiculous to base NZ legislation on a model that is set up to serve a population of in excess of 58 million with 10 million registered as disabled as NZ is trying to do with the UK system – which may be flawed for UK standards but actually is still better than anything we currently have for disabilities in NZ – its time we looked at creating our own reforms to reflect our own needs and population- NZ is increasingly becoming the country that “borrows” others ideas and labels them as there own!.

  2. Allyson says:

    Governments are clearly going against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. By reducing the mainstream employment programme they clearly want people to work hard, and if they can’t work hard to earn lots of money…..

    We have to fight this!

  3. This sucks, to put it bluntly. The UK system has already been shown to be a Very Bad Thing, with all sorts of stupidities. Why on earth (apart from the obvious reason of $$$Money money money) is NZ even considering copying it??!!

  4. I’m so glad that you’ve got this information out publicly. The thing that gets me is how Aylward’s own research has been funded by an insurance company. I’m extremely concerned about how the proposed reforms will chronically effect people with disabilities. Well done for producing this response to Paula Bennett’s speech so quickly.

  5. Roger Loveless says:

    Why is it that government ministers always seem to try and latch on to overseas research models as though they can provide a “silver bullet” to “sort out” the perceived problems? In mainstream society people make their own decisions on their education, what work they will do and their work/life balance. When your capacity to work is limited by disability, so many hurdles must be overcome. On 20 hours a week can I aspire to a managerial position? Even if I earn at the same rate as a full time colleague, I’ll only take home half their earnings. If I must depend on public transport it will cost just as much, and usually take a lot longer if my colleagues have a car. If I have an adapted car, it will probably be bigger and more petrol hungry. I will be expected to use my “non working” hours for essential health related appointments and my family will feel obliged to assist at no cost to the state. With all these hurdles why are people demonised for making a rational economic decision that they may be better off on a benefit and working for no pay at their own pace? Surely it is time to take a long hard look at how we got here and start with a clean slate to develop something that works in consultation with the disabled community. After all New Zealanders were leading lights when the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was developed.

  6. Leilani – I think that Insurance companies are keen to fund research like this because they live and breathe statistics. It’s a good source of information for them to assist underwriters in assessing risk. Nothing sinister I don’t think!

  7. Chris Ford says:

    I am absolutely terrified of what the Government has proposed. We do need to fight this. This government is driven by an ideological bent to get as many people off welfare as possible, irrespective of the deteriorating economic climate, and the barriers they face. However, what does encourage me in the New Zealand context is that our Parliament is more finely balanced than the UK one, we have an absence of tabloid media (apart from a few well known, redneck, radio talkback hosts), we also live in a more closely knit society than the UK and many New Zealanders were discomfited by the disclosures made against ACC by prominent National Party member Bronwyn Pullar. While I am opposed to benefit testing regimes of any description, I believe that the next best thing we can do if the Government is determined to go down this path is to argue for a testing regime that fully takes into account the social model of disability, is fair and just, and will enable people to keep claiming full disability benefits if assessed as ‘fit to work’ until they find suitable, paid work. Otherwise, if we go down the UK route, horror stories will proliferate in the media and the tolerance of New Zealanders towards disabled people being treated unfairly may see our government more prepared to back down. This might particularly be the case given that we face a general election only 15 months after welfare reforms ‘go live’ in July next year. On the other hand, though, the NZ public’s appetite for welfare reform is high (as it is in the UK) despite an ongoing economic downturn. So, we as disabled people, will have to plan our campaign strategies carefully to both marshal public support and point out the plan’s deficiencies.

  8. Gayleen Maurice says:

    having worked alongside activist Helen Capel as she supported people at their interview with a designated doctor, I have seen time and time again WINZ rubber stamping the Doctors decision that the person should be working. They were dropped from Invalids benefit to sickness benefit to adjust to the income difference, and then to the unemployment benefit. no….none were capable of working more than 10 hours a week, usually a total of 4hrs from leaving home to arriving home before being completely exhausted.The worry for these people made them ALL so unwell, and exasperated their disability/ies. Now it is progressing to a more punitive and illogical position.

  9. Sarah says:

    The insurance company Unum which is funding this research has been banned in most states of America after huge amounts of successful lawsuits filed against them. They systematically refused to pay out on valid insurance claims resulting in many American deaths. Unum is also the parent company to Atos, who, by assessing disability and refusing genuine claims is making huge profits at the detriment of many severely disabled people. There is now a recorded average of 73 sick and disabled people dying in the UK eack WEEK after being assessed by Atos and declared fit, forcing them into work they cannot do or stripping them of benefits leaving them hopeless enough to commit suicide. Please, take a closer look at these companies and the effects of their ‘expertise’ and do all you can to keep them out of NZ.

  10. Roy Davis says:

    In answer to Unum are in business of not paying Insurance premiums and their statistics are kept for them to worm their way out of not paying people when they try and claim on their policies. They are banned or being investigated in almost half of the US states and some european countries. don’t fall for this evil company. They are destroying the lives of people in this country. People are being found capable of work and then dying within 24 hours. New Zealand you must not let them invade your country, fight them on the beaches.

  11. Phil from Wales UK says:

    I am from the UK and have just been through this so called “assessment” The person looking at my disability, was a nurse, not a doctor. They are expected to declare most people they see,as fit for work.
    One person I know actually had an epeleptic fit, as the “assessment” was ongoing, but was still declared fit for work, as they didn’t have a fit daily ?
    The idea is “if you can walk for 50 yards (with or without aids) lift 1/2 litre carton and are able to raise your hand above your head you are fit to work”
    I really hope that your government sees sense and does not apply the “assessment” system used over here,it has caused a lot of rifts in society, with the rich baying for the blood of people who are ill, and insisting that the sick are all capable of work.

  12. Phil from Wales UK says:

    Ps if anyone wants to see how their capabilities would be assessed according to the British system, then have a look at the page below . To be incapable of work, you must accrue at least 15 points

  13. Rob from Uk says:

    It is the classic situation of assumptions by everyone. If you really want to help the disabled get work and be part of society the discrimination has to be removed!

    I have worked all my life and a few others too as a disabled tax payers but in the end nearly all of us have suffered extreme discrimination to such an extend that we had to give up work, and sue. This is a shameful position of UK. I like to point out that I was employed by HM Government UK!! for 20 years.

    Now we are being punished for NOT being in work! or being on benefits.

    The real question asked should be this “Why is it so difficult for the disabled to get jobs and keep them?” You will find it is because of Societies/Government failures to provide the basics under their own discrimination laws. In UK our Discrimination laws is unenforcebale and weak.

    It is a classic of damned if we do work, damned if we cant?

  14. Sue UK says:

    Please, please, please do NOT let this happen to anyone else. The system as it is in the UK currently is literally killing people, or driving them to suicide. It is an inhuman, corrupt & very dangerous programme & should be BANNED from all countries. Please fight as hard as you can to stop this being introduced in your country. For the sake of all decent, caring human beings…

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