Personalisation can’t be a tool to cut welfare costs

‎Monday’s Work Health and Disability Green Paper is one of a dwindling breed – all papers come out White these days. Green Papers were always supposed to float vague policy ideas for input before a White version was produced, but successive governments have increasingly opted to skip this step and produce fait accompli documents with detailed plans, and what increasingly feels like limited consultation on the detail. To be fair, the Green Paper actually started out White at the beginning of the year – then one Brexit vote and wholesale change of personnel later, and the relevant departments clearly felt it was sensible to roll back the plans that would have been the thrust of the previous Secretaries of State.

As a result, the Green Paper is relatively vague – outlining principles and directions of reform, with a few solid ‎actions (eg creating a new “Disability Confident” business leaders group) peppered throughout. But of course this isn’t a bad thing – this is a contentious and contested policy area, which has suffered from excessive politicisation in recent years. Any reform to disability unemployment benefits will be made against a backdrop of years of deeply contraversial budget cuts and the most radical of those – a £30 reduction per week for new ESA WRAG claimants – scheduled for next year. It would be easy for critics to dismiss a fait accompli strategy reforming fit for work assessment and follow up support from a government which brought us PIP, the Bedroom Tax and Universal Credit.

Laying out some basic directions and then throwing the document open to significant levels of expert input‎ over a lengthy consultation period allows for a fresh start of sorts. And what are those basic principles? Key among them is that employment support needs to be more personalised, and that it should take to heart the fact that (good) work promotes physical and mental health. These are indesputable, impossible to oppose ideas, proven by the fact that criticism of the Paper has thus far focused on the Cameron government’s past acts – cuts to employment support and benefits since 2010 – and the future ESA reduction mentioned above. How will you deliver personalised support when you’ve cut budgets so drastically? critics ask. Good question.

The fact is, employment support is ripe for personalisation. It is, in my opinion, years behind other public services on this front and should adopt a personal budgets regime asap. ‎There’s a lot to learn from social care here – including setting personalised outcomes, co-designing a back to work plan, and using ESA and Work Programme funds in a unified way to support pathways to work. But there’s also some things to avoid. Personalisation is not a tool to cut costs, despite many local authorities using personal budgets to squeeze social care spending. The reasoning behind this is that if an individual is planning their own support, they are likely to be more efficient (as they have a better grasp of what they really need) and have fewer overheads than a local authority social care department. As a result there has long been a myth that “personalised” is cheaper than” block purchased” when it comes to social care. ‎Unfortunately it has been common practice for individuals to be given personal budgets worth significantly less than the local authority would have spent on their care package – often with a predictable worsening in the quality of care.

Let’s hope‎ the Green Paper’s vision of personalisation for employment support involves greater partnership with unemployed disabled people, an opportunity for them to help plan and take real ownership of their journey to work, and to generate more targeted and effective support packages – and that it’s not based on the misplaced belief that personalised support is yet another driver for reducing welfare spending.