Civil servant sparks fresh concerns over ideological basis of jobs strategy

The civil servant who leads the government’s work and health unit has sparked fresh concerns that the new disability employment strategy could be heavily influenced by the discredited “biopsychosocial” (BPS) model of disability.

Tabitha Jay told a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for disability (APPGD) yesterday (Wednesday) that the social model of disability underpinned the strategy, which has an aim of seeing one million more disabled people in work over the next 10 years.

But she also appeared to suggest that the BPS model was “running in parallel” to the social model within the strategy.

The BPS model places blame for being unemployed on the individual disabled person and their supposed negative attitudes towards working, whereas the social model explains that it is the barriers in society – and not people’s impairments – which disabled people.

Jay was only speaking at the event because the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, had withdrawn at short notice after originally promising to answer questions about the strategy.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, had asked the civil servants about the disparity between the government’s claims that it believed in the social model and the new strategy, which appeared to be underpinned by the BPS model.

Clifford (pictured, right, at another event) told Jay and Karen Jochelson, who heads the Office for Disability Issues, that the question of which model underpinned the strategy was “fundamental to its impact and effectiveness”.

She pointed out that the UK government had told the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities in July that it “embraces the social model of disability”, while the former minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt, had assured her that the strategy would be consistent with the social model.

But Clifford said the strategy, published in November after Newton’s appointment, was in practice underpinned by the BPS model, which was “very dangerous and very harmful” and accounts for “a lot of the damaging impact” of the work capability assessment and other welfare reforms.

She said: “That fundamental underpinning is what is at the heart of a lot of things that haven’t been working with welfare reform, and it’s also unethical.”

Clifford said these concerns had been picked up by many psychologists, highlighting government reforms such as efforts to integrate health and work, and placing therapists in job centres.

The disabled crossbench peer the Countess of Mar agreed with Clifford’s concerns and said that people with ME were being “forced to take exercise regimes which are making them sicker, defeating the objective of getting them back to work”.

Responding to Clifford’s question, Jay claimed that the social model “is the government’s model of disability”.

But she added: “The one million target is about both people with disabilities and people with health conditions, some of which may be very temporary.

“There are all kinds of different people within the one million and some of them might benefit from a health approach, so there are different things running in parallel.”

Karen Jochelson, who heads the Office for Disability Issues, added: “We do think the social model underlies a range of government policy.

“Any good policy-maker needs to think of a range of factors that may affect the potential users of services or policies, so that would incline one to think about the social model.”

Clifford said after the meeting that the comments appeared to show that Jay did not understand the social model.

She said: “What we have been told is that the social model doesn’t apply to people with long-term health conditions.”

She said she was concerned that Esther McVey, the newly-appointed work and pensions secretary, had previously highlighted her support for the principles of the BPS model when she was employment minister.

In a foreword to a 2013 discussion document on the government’s disability and health employment strategy, McVey wrote: “A person’s belief about what they can do can be as important as other factors, including their health condition, in determining how likely they are to find a job.”

Jay told Disability News Service after the meeting: “Access to relevant health services at the right time can be a barrier for disabled people in employment, I think. That is our position.

“We are committed to the social model. The whole philosophy of the government’s approach is the social model.”

But when asked whether the government was also committed to the BPS model, she said that that question would need to be answered by the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) press office.

DWP’s press office had not clarified that point by noon today (Thursday).

Campaigners and researchers have pointed out that the BPS model underpins employment and support allowance (ESA) and the work capability assessment, and has played a significant role in the tightening of eligibility criteria for ESA and other disability benefits by the coalition and Tory governments.

Research published last year, led by Professor Tom Shakespeare and Professor Nicholas Watson, argued that the BPS model was riddled with inconsistencies, misleading statements and “unevidenced” claims.

The BPS model was developed by Dr Gordon Waddell, an orthopaedic surgeon, and Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, who was DWP’s chief medical officer from 1995 to 2005.

Key to the BPS model, said Shakespeare and Watson, is the idea that “it is the negative attitudes of many ESA recipients that prevent them from working, rather than their impairment or health condition”, essentially branding many benefit claimants “scroungers”.

This allows supporters of BPS – including a string of New Labour and Tory government ministers – to draw a distinction “between ‘real’ incapacity benefit claimants, with long-term and incurable health conditions, and ‘fake’ benefit claimants, with short-term illness”, with the model responsible for a “barely concealed” element of “victim-blaming”.

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