Forthcoming symposium – Disability, between individual trajectories and institutional rationale: employment, work and social policy, University of Lille, April 2013

I was pleased to find out today that I’ve been asked to report on both my research and broader developments in work-related policy towards disabled people in the UK at a symposium of French academics (in English, thankfully, seeing as my French extends to the chorus of Non, Je ne regrette rien and asking where the beach is) at the University of Lille this coming April.

Le handicap entre trajectoires individuelles et logiques institutionnelles: emploi, travail, politiques sociales [Disability, between individual trajectories and institutional rationale: employment, work and social policy] is one of the first major attempts to put French disability policy under examination in comparison with other countries since a major reform in France in 2005.

Given that international comparison in the field is so underdeveloped, this is a great opportunity to get a feel for developments outwith the UK and Denmark; and especially France, which was absent from the only major comparative study thus far; the OECD’s Sickness, Disability and Work: Breaking the Barriers.  This will be of help as I start writing the chapter of the thesis that looks at broader cross-national developments.

Abstract: ‘Activating’ disabled people in the UK: Who, when and how – and how much?

Getting disabled people into work has been one of the aims of the UK’s public employment services since 1997, but the place of that aim on the welfare-to-work agenda has waxed and waned in the years since, alongside a series of changes to the way non-employed disabled people are identified as prospects for re-integration and subsequently helped back into the labour market.  This paper seeks to provide both a general overview of how working-age disability has been handled by the UK welfare-to-work state in recent years and present what political and institutional factors have influenced how well it has been able to respond to what is acknowledged by government and disabled people’s groups (though for quite different reasons) to be a major problem, with more than two million people of working age claiming incapacity benefits.

The development of policy in the UK can be characterised as shifts along three different dimensions.  Firstly, the period has seen a movement from rather closely specified specialised services that disabled people could access on a voluntary basis to more unified, mainstream approaches that at the programme level make less of a formal distinction between disabled jobseekers and others. There are widespread concerns that the new single Work Programme is unlikely to be able to cater for those with more complex employment barriers; particularly given the way the payment-by-results system gives service providers to ignore the hardest to help claimants. This has gone alongside a second raft of changes to the eligibility for the new Employment and Support Allowance benefit; with many losing eligibility to unconditional benefit and thus being subsequently required to make steps towards work under the threat of a reduction in benefits. It is far from clear whether the availability of appropriate employment services has been expanded to reflect the greater number of disabled claimants made to seek work. Thirdly, the enthusiasm for providing a genuinely rich and individually-tailored scheme of employment support services for disabled people has fluctuated over recent years. By 2006 it had become one of the three major priorities of the public employment service, but it waned very quickly thereafter in light of the failure of the high-profile Pathways to Work scheme and the return of the problem of mass unemployment.

After this general outlining of the British case, the paper will move on to offering explanations for these shifts, drawing on the results of extensive documentary and statistical analysis and a series of thirty interviews with policymakers and other stakeholders. This is part of a broader project seeking to create a framework for understanding in what ways and to what extent back-to-work services for disabled people have been institutionalised in the UK and Denmark.

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