They say you’re not a proper journalist until you’ve put in a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request
. After over a decade in the news business, I finally submitted my first FOI this week.
The subject was recent comments made by the UK’s finance minister Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he appeared to make a link between the British economy’s low productivity problem and an increase in the number of disabled people entering the workforce.
This, perhaps understandably, caused uproar
amongst disabled people, disability rights campaigners, disability charities, and some – though not all – politicians. It also led to one startup founder messaging me to ask what I made of it all. To him, the reaction (mine included) seemed a little overblown, especially since, he argued, productivity is measured in a crude way, regardless.
Before I share my response, let’s recap on what the UK Chancellor actually said. Speaking to the Commons’ Treasury Select Committee, Hammond was asked to comment on the pessimistic productivity growth forecasts within his recent Budget. He said:
“It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups, very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people - something we should be extremely proud of - we may have had an impact on the overall productivity measurement.”
To begin with, there is something about being referred to in government terms as a “marginal group” that doesn’t sit well with me, but putting that aside, I found Hammond’s comments to be disgraceful on multiple levels:
First, where is the data to back up the claim that an increase in people with disabilities moving into employment is a contributory factor to low productivity in the UK? In fact, there is actually some anecdotal evidence from employers to suggest the opposite can be the case, because disabled people desperately want to work and often bring extra problem solving skills and general can-do thinking.
Second, by suggesting in any way that disabled people make inefficient employees, he has played into the hands of employers who often don’t employ disabled people because of that very fear. (See ITK issues #3
Third, it is really insulting to all of the hardworking people who have a disability (and sometimes quite major ones) who are able to find employment and/or are blatantly productive, either in purely economic terms or socially or both.
Fourth (and this one is more contentious), the government has promoted a political and media agenda of strivers vs skivers, which has pushed people – some of whom it shouldn’t have – off benefits and into work that isn’t always suited to them, and is now turning around and saying, ‘by the way, these new strivers we helped create (for whom we are taking credit) aren’t actually very productive after all.
Fifth, comments by a prominent government minister that appear to frame disabled people as a drain on society are in danger of fuelling hate crime against disabled people, which has increased dramatically
in the last few years. See point four.
If that was all a bit tl;dr, perhaps Sophie Morgan, disabled person off the telly, summed it up best when she tweeted
This lie is a huge set back. There is NO evidence to back up his claim whatsoever. Our struggle to work - and be VALUED in society - is real and this will only make it harder.
Hammond’s comments also led me to send a number of angry tweets, some I’ve since deleted (pro tip: don’t social media in anger). This prompted ex-government advisor Daniel Korski to helpfully suggest I put in an FOI request to see what evidence or data, if any, the Chancellor’s comments are based on. So I did exactly that
I’ll publish the reply in a future ITK, if and when I get one.
(The chances of there being any evidence seem slim, based on the Prime Minister’s weak response
when being challenged during last week’s PMQs.)