Selling Myself Short

What is the difference between a disabled lawyer and a lawyer with a disability? James ponders the d

When this blog appeared for the first time on the New Statesman website, I experienced a feeling of self-consciousness, especially about the biography on the right hand side of the page, which is both longer than those of other contributors and written in the first person.

Partly this is because, like many with autism, I am quite a private person and I knew that my friends, and indeed strangers, would be able to read it. However, there is much more to it than that.

My writing is something of which I am proud and I will doubtless want to alert any potential future employers to my achievements in this area of my life. Even if I choose not to mention it, they could find my blog via Google without too much difficulty. Therefore, I must ask myself whether I really want them to know just how disabled I am.

It is usually a dilemma as to whether I want to disclose my disability on job applications. In practice, I am not always given the choice.

I am currently studying law and around half of the firms offering training contracts brazenly, and illegally, ask for this information up front. As well as making me concerned that I will be discriminated against, this gives me little faith that they are at the cutting edge in the field of employment law.

In other cases, such as working for a Disability Law Centre, it is possible that being disabled is actually an advantage, but herein lies a subtle problem. To obtain work in the area of disability, or as a writer on the subject, it can be necessary to prove that you are disabled enough for the role. As someone with a hidden impairment like autism, I feel inclined to play down my strengths and play up supposed weaknesses to show legitimacy, which partly explains why I wrote the biography in the way that I did. This tension pressures me into making a choice between being a disabled lawyer or simply a lawyer who happens to be disabled.

A similar contradiction is faced by all disabled people in employment, sadly still a minority, as a result of the disability discrimination legislation itself. In order to qualify to have reasonable adjustments made on their behalf, disabled employees must be able to demonstrate the extent of their impairment, while simultaneously convincing their bosses of their talent.

If they eventually find the need to bring a claim, they will have to persuade a tribunal that they both count as disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act and that they are sufficiently good at their jobs to render any differential treatment unjustified.

Some people regard the problem as simply one of language, which can be resolved just by altering the words that we use. In the Queen’s Speech, the government announced a not-quite-radical plan to reform Incapacity Benefit, by changing its name – for a second time.

Although the proposed shift of emphasis from incapacity to capacity would in some ways be welcome, it will be counter-productive if accompanied, as seems likely, with lots of extra hoops that people have to jump through in order to demonstrate their entitlement.

What is really needed is a fundamental change of attitude, a separation between proving one’s disability and proving one’s ability. This can only come about when it is accepted that fair treatment is an automatic right for everyone, not a privilege to be earned, and employers can see beyond irrelevant factors in deciding who is best qualified for the job.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation