Why have disability categories in social security? Deborah Mabbett Brunel University



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Disability and employment

All the income maintenance systems of the EU member states have an ‘incapacity’ or ‘invalidity’ category. The first condition of eligibility for this category is lack of income from work. A range of alternative classifications is available for people without an income from work: unemployed, early retired, partially or fully incapacitated, etc. The way these different categories are defined and structured depends partly on institutional legacies (e.g. the existence of different insurance institutions for different ‘risks’) and partly on the country’s employment policy. Changes in policy towards the unemployed have implications for the definition of incapacity. In a number of countries, including the UK, supply-side interpretations of unemployment, emphasising the lack of work readiness of unemployed people, now dominate over demand-side interpretations (emphasising the lack of jobs). This has led to the development of new policies to assist people to enter employment, with a new set of analytical tools and administrative practices. The analytical tools include ideas about multiple and inter-related barriers to employment, which may be social, environmental and personal. The administrative practices include the increased use of casework.


These changes in the conduct of policy towards the unemployed have several implications for disability policies. Distinctions between disabled people and other jobseekers may become less important in the delivery of employment services such as placement assistance and training. This might then have knock-on effects on the administration of income maintenance benefits. In the UK, the ‘Jobcentre Plus’ initiative reflects the idea that access to mainstream employment services may enable groups who are not required to look for work (lone parents and carers as well as disabled people) to enter employment. So far, there have been no knock-on effects on categorisation for benefits, but some consequences might be expected in the future, if only because of the inconsistency between classifying people as incapable of work and requiring them to attend a work-focused interview.
In a number of European countries, the role of disability categories in employment service provision has been reduced. Services for disabled people have been brought under the same institutional structure as those for other job-seekers and the package of services offered has been made more similar to the general package. In some of these institutions, not much rests on giving a person a disability classification, and not all people who might qualify seek to be labelled as disabled. While many commentators see this ‘mainstreaming’ of employment services as a positive development, there is concern that specialised provision which recognises the particular problems and barriers facing disabled people is not being made available.
In the main, income maintenance benefit systems do still use disability categories defined around ability to work, but there are some exceptions. Reforms currently in progress in Denmark will remove work incapacity categories from the income maintenance system, eliminating the categorical distinction between disabled people and other working age recipients of benefits delivered via the municipalities (unemployment insurance is delivered by insurance institutions). This is the culmination of a long-running set of ‘activation’ reforms which have greatly expanded the legal and financial scope for the exercise of local discretion to promote employment. This casework-based system is seen as having the flexibility to respond to the individual needs and circumstances of clients.
In France there has been a debate about the use of the disability category in income maintenance policy which focuses on the relationship between the means-tested disability benefit (AAH) and the general social assistance benefit, RMI. RMI recipients are meant to have contracts of ‘insertion’ which will promote an eventual return to the labour market, whereas AAH does not have any insertion requirements. Surveys of RMI recipients suggest that about one-third have some limiting health condition, and presumably this is sometimes reflected in the terms of the insertion contract (e.g. limitations on availability for work as a result of poor health may be accepted). It is arguable that, if the contracts are sufficiently flexible, it should not be necessary to have a separate disability benefit, as the administration of the general benefit can respond to the needs of disabled people. However, the establishment of individual contracts for Rmistes has proved administratively burdensome, and perhaps AAH survives partly because of this.
The comparison of the Danish and French examples suggests that the capacity of the system to undertake effective casework is a key issue in the unification of categories. The Danish system is decentralised and is built on a long tradition of linking social work to social assistance. Our research suggests that centralised social security systems may not have the mechanisms of local governance necessary to support the discretionary, individually-based approach adopted in Denmark. The UK’s system is highly centralised, and this is likely to be an important constraint on reforms to the structure of social security categories.

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