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Eight recommendations on Help to Work

Jenny Gulliford

30 September 2013

George Osborne’s announcement of the new ‘Help to Work’ scheme has been met with passionate responses from both its supporters and its detractors.

Despite the flurry of interest, the idea behind the scheme is not particularly new. The government has been looking into this policy for some time- first under the guise of the Community Action Plan and more lately under the slightly more cumbersome  name ‘Support for the Very Long Term Unemployed’ (or SVLTU to the policy nerds). The assessment of the trailblazer pilot was actually published back in 2012, with the equality impact assessment published even earlier, in 2011. It is designed to help people who have been helped by the Work Programme, most of whom will have been unemployed for three or more years. As Graeme Cooke over at IPPR points out, this group is a very small proportion of overall jobseekers, around 1/20. 

We are therefore well equipped to take a serious look at whether it is likely this scheme will be effective in helping people back into work. Whilst Help to Work will offer claimants three options – a long term mandatory work placement, high-intensity Job Centre Plus (JCP) Support or an education or training placement- SVLTU provided either a work placement, or intense JCP support. The SVLTU assessment tested these interventions by comparing them to the outcomes achieved through the standard JCP package. 

Firstly, and most importantly, the SVLTU trailblazer assessment found that the intervention had little impact on job outcomes at the end of the six month placement, with the percentage of people entering work (15-17%) not differing significantly from the control group. It is probable that this is at least in part the result of a ‘locking in’ effect, which also occurred in Australia’s ‘Work for the Dole’, where the scheme actually had an adverse effect on youth unemployment in some cases (see our ‘Missing Million’ report). Moreover, given the negligible impact of the Mandatory Work Activity scheme, which I have written on previously, it is perhaps no surprise that the placement element is ineffective.

There were however some ‘softer’ benefits to the both elements of the scheme, with individuals on the placement and those receiving intensive support experiencing a positive shift in terms of how close they felt that they were to the labour market, and the amount of work-related activity they were participating in. It is possible that these changes in behaviour might lead to improved job outcomes in the months after the end of the scheme.

With this in mind I have eight concerns and recommendations:

1) As the assessment points out the group that will be in this programme are the people who, for the most part, have the most complex and severe barriers to work. The ‘scroungers’ which some people might envision this programme targeting will be well in the minority. Given that a third of all participants in the trailblazer cited health issues or disability as barrier to work, and 20% listed family or caring commitments, this is a group that’s going to need specialised support, not just harsher conditionality. 

2) The government should also be aware that a proportion of this group should simply not be claiming JSA. Over the course of the trailblazer 4-5% of the pilot group moved on to ESA or Income Support. An assessment before entering ‘Help to Work’ to ensure that the person is claiming the right benefit should be considered. Placing or keeping someone on a cheaper benefit is short-sighted and prevents them from getting the support they need. Benefit-type decisions must be realistic. 

3) The intensive job support strand must be tailored to provide actual support for people with complex conditions- forcing people to attend daily meetings may not achieve positive work outcomes if  the severe barriers that some people will be facing are not addressed.

4) With issues travelling to work also cited as a common barrier to work in the trailblazer, the government should consider allowing Jobcentres to carry out JCP meetings over the phone or via email to reduce the burden of travel costs and time.
5) Work experience placements, if they are to be useful enablers of employment, must be relevant to the individual, and must teach valuable and transferable skills. They must be of a quality that not only helps an individual prepare for work , but that can convince an employer that they are ready for it. 

6) Work experience placements must not replace actual jobs, with all placements being additional to existing roles. This is very hard to insure in practice, , and must be a top priority if the government does not want to remove paying jobs from the labour market and increase the unemployment rate overall.

7) Sanctions should always be a last resort. Given the impact that a four week sanction can have on an individual- driving them into debt for example - this is not a decision that should be taken lightly. 

8) Finally, it should be noted that this is a supply side intervention. The biggest barrier by far, with over 80% of people on the trailblazer pilot pointing this out, is the ‘lack of vacancies or too much competition for jobs’. Whilst such schemes are important in helping people become ready to work, without jobs they can only do so much.