After a year of false starts, three Secretaries of State, and a change of colour from white to green, the Work, Health & Disability Green Paper has finally come out. By a strange quirk of fate, these delays have meant it has come out barely a week after the launch of Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, perhaps the first screen polemic against the way that disability is treated in the benefits system. And even more surprisingly, I want to argue that the Green Paper can be seen as providing answers to one of the key issues in the film – at the same time as raising new questions that need to be answered. 

The iron cage of bureaucracy

At the start of the film, as the credits flash in front of us, we hear a conversation between Daniel Blake and an assessor for the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). I can’t do it any justice, but it’s one of the most memorable scenes of the film; the WCA questions seem bizarre and irrelevant, and you hear Daniel Blake wittily, angrily trying to make his way through the tick boxes that don’t seem to fit him but which he is forced to jump through all the same.

The film is many things, but it is perhaps most of all a picture of how an ill man is failed by an iron cage of bureaucracy. Daniel Blake is found fit-for-work by a WCA that asks a series of meaningless questions without focussing on his heart condition. He can’t appeal the decision until he gets a phonecall from a ‘decision maker’, for which he waits while already having his benefit cut off. He’s forced to try to to apply for unemployment benefits online because the system is ‘digital by default’, even though he can’t use a computer. And he’s then required to spend 35hrs/wk looking for work, which he then can’t take because he’s too ill.

The Secretary of State’s response is to question the accuracy of the film – a debate I’ll come back to at another point. But what he could equally have said is that this is the very situation that Universal Credit is designed to avoid. Rather than putting people into a box with standard rules labelled ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ or one of the two boxes called ‘Employment and Support Allowance’, it tailors the conditionality (i.e. the things people are required to do, and the penalties for not doing them) to the person. Indeed, the word ‘personalised’ appears 31 times in the Green Paper:

“In order to realise our ambition to ensure individuals can access personalised support while still receiving the additional financial help they need, we need to consider whether the Work Capability Assessment is the right vehicle for deciding access to personalised employment support…[Under a new system,] work coaches could have full discretion to tailor any employment support to each individual claimant. This approach would be truly responsive, allowing the work coach to adjust requirements and goals dependent on changes in a person’s condition or circumstances.”

While there are some aspects of this that are new (previously people who the WCA saw as incapable of work-related activity had no conditionality in ESA or UC ), this can also be seen as a logical extension of the idea of Universal Credit, which was all about personalised support and conditionality. So the Green Paper is obviously not a direct response to I, Daniel Blake – this is the whole direction that ‘welfare reform’ has been moving for the last few years, not the last few days.

The dangers of discretion

We are therefore moving away from the dangers of an iron cage of bureaucracy – but this introduces a new danger, the danger of discretion. As various experts (including Mind and Neil Crowther) have already highlighted, the extension of conditionality to nearly all disabled benefit claimants includes considerable risks. One of these risks is about the effectiveness & fairness of conditionality & sanctions for disabled people in general – I am currently reviewing the evidence on disability & conditionality and commissioning an attitudes survey to see what the public think, so I’ll be regularly returning to these issues on the blog.

The other risk that the Government has to manage, though, is that discretion could mean that people will be required to do things they aren’t capable of. Yet this is not the main issue that’s raised by I, Daniel Blake. If anything, it’s the lack of discretion available to Jobcentre staff that’s raised as an issue (one of the Jobcentre staff is told off for trying to help him in ways that contravene procedure). In the call to arms at the end of the film, Daniel Blake writes:

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user… I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen… My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.”

To the extent that the Green Paper is all about personalisation, it’s about treating people as human beings rather than bureaucratic categories, just as Ken Loach was calling for. But to the extent that it’s about extending conditionality, it also introduces considerable new risks – perhaps a topic for Loach’s next film, if he decides to make one.

The future of the WCA

As a final aside, it’s worth noting what’s happened to the WCA in the Green Paper. Over the weekend, the news trailed that the WCA was going to be overhauled. What this means is that the WCA will no longer set conditionality, or indeed which benefit people are on (because Universal Credit combines ESA and JSA, or at least the non-contributory versions of them). And in many ways this is the aspect of the WCA that troubles people the most.

Still, disabled people will get a higher level of benefit, and this will still need a separate assessment. The consultation is open to changing this – one of the questions is, “What other alternatives could we explore to improve the system for assessing financial support?” – but it doesn’t have any fixed ideas on what to change it to. The Green Paper merely says any new assessment should use existing medical & social care evidence as far as possible, and “should still focus on the impact that an individual’s health condition has on them”. So this is something else to think about, and I’ll return to this on the blog in the coming months as well.