Is welfare to work working well?
Employment rates for people with disabilities and long term conditions (LTCs) have long been below the national average. This is perhaps understandable, when you consider the additional barriers that these people face when both looking for and retaining employment. Data from 2014 tells us that whilst the national employment rate was 76.1% at that time, only 46.1% of disabled people were in work1.
This is a problem for several reasons. Evidence tells us that ‘good work’ (work that is fulfilling, secure and interesting) has many psychosocial and financial benefits, and can even improve health. Many people who are disabled or have LTCs want to and are capable of work, so surely the Government has a duty to assist them where it can. Additionally, the current Government has a manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap, meaning that they’re aiming for one million more employed disabled people by 2020.
Is there existing support for these groups?
In 2011 the Coalition Government launched its flagship welfare-to-work programme, called the ‘Work Programme’. Within this, unemployed people with varying levels of condition or disability are placed in groups according to their assessed ability to work. Dependent on their allocation, individuals are supported to make certain steps towards gaining employment; the nature of this support varies, but usually involves employability provision such as CV writing workshops. These are run by organisations that have won tenders to run back to work services in an area (some of these providers contract out parts of their services to other organisations, referred to as subcontractors). These organisations are paid when they take on an individual into their programme, and receive more money if and when that person achieves an employment outcome.
Unfortunately, the current ‘welfare to work’ employment provision for people with disabilities and LTCs isn’t making the low level of disability employment improve. Employment outcomes for those leaving the two year programme in 2014 were stuck at 11%2. This figure is consistent with the 12% employment rates seen by the previous programmes that the Work Programme replaced; disappointing figures for the Government, as the Work Programme’s structure was designed to overcome perceived barriers in preceding programmes.
What are the problems with existing provision?
It’s an exciting time in Westminster for those of us interested in health and employment. Last autumn, the Chancellor announced the formation of a new ‘Health and Work Joint Unit ’3, which will be responsible for commissioning the Work Programme’s replacement in 2017 (this new programme will be called the ‘Work and Health Programme’, but we’re still awaiting confirmation of any further details). The Work Foundation’s seventh policy paper looks at the existing Work Programme, examines the challenges facing it, and makes recommendations for what the new programme could change to improve employment outcomes.
In particular, we take a look at the Work Capability Assessment (the measure used to decide which group a person with a disability or health condition is placed in to), which quickly became controversial after its inception in 2011. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have already made changes to the process, but the lack of trust or belief in the system to be a fair measure of ability to work endures. We then turn to the commissioning and structure of the Work Programme, which, despite efforts to prevent it, still leads to a phenomenon called ‘creaming’ and ‘parking’; where the easiest to help are ‘creamed off’ and the hardest to help are given little to no support. This happens in part due to the inefficient and often inaccurate grouping process that can fail to fully acknowledge the difficulties an individual may face in gaining employment. We then discuss the importance of specialised support for people with disabilities and LTCs, and whether the voluntary, smaller programme Work Choice, solely designed for people with health problems, is a better fit. Finally, we look at devolution and the opportunities it can bring, and whether in the promotion of local, more specialised schemes (some examples of which have shown promising signs), regions can improve their own provision.
How can employment support be improved?
Our paper makes four categories of recommendations to improve on current provision for the new programme. These are:
• Improvements to the assessment process and at the offer from JobCentre Plus (JCP). Any new assessment of disability should be fully co-produced with disability groups. JCP should look to further enhance its specialist disability support, where possible bringing in other local bodies such as Clinical Commissioning Groups and Local Economic Partnerships.
• Commissioning and Payments. The payment structure needs to better reflect the costs of helping claimants with significant barriers.
• Improving specialist support. Specialist disability support should be enhanced, and utilise new methods.
• Supporting and benefiting from local innovation. Employment support should be better integrated with other regional bodies. Examples of local variation should be properly evaluated in order to identify pockets of ‘best practice’.
We believe the recommendations proposed in this paper, if implemented in the new Work and Health Programme and in Jobcentre Plus, will improve employment outcomes for people with LTCs. However, in order to meet the increase required to close the disability employment gap, more radical approaches should be considered. We particularly suggest that social enterprise opportunities and utilising the apprenticeship level to support disability employment should be examined as options.