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Beth Foley
Beth Foley

Three ways to improve the Work Programme for ESA claimants

Authors: Beth Foley Beth Foley and Jenny Gulliford

20 March 2014

The latest figures (released today) from the Work Programme reflect an ongoing problem. Participants claiming ESA – those with health conditions or disabilities – continue to see very low success rates, with just one in twenty achieving a job outcome within a year. ESA participants achieve outcomes at a rate three times lower than JSA claimants, with performance for this group far below DWP’s Minimum Performance expectations. What’s more, those claiming ESA constitute a rapidly growing proportion of Work Programme participants, rising from 3% of the initial cohort to nearly one in three by 2013. ESA participants with mental health conditions or behavioural disorders (by far the largest category of ESA claimants) appear to be faring particularly badly; the cumulative job outcome rate for those in this group is 4.2%, compared to an overall rate of 17%.

In some respects, these figures are not surprising. The Work Programme’s payment-by-results model, combined with poor performance to date, has left providers with limited resources to invest in the specialist support services required by many on the scheme, particularly those with mental health conditions. However, given the significant long-term savings associated with assisting disadvantaged jobseekers into employment, we feel the government should consider ways to use Work Programme’s underspend  to better support this group.

There are a number of options for doing so. The first would involve reducing the risks inherent in the Work Programme’s outcomes-focused payment structure. This could better account for the significant support requirements of many participants with physical and mental health conditions before they can enter employment. One option for doing so would be to retain some form of upfront funding for participants with health conditions. However, there would be no means of guaranteeing providers would spend the money on this group.

An alternative would be to retain the outcome-focused structure, but to offer payments for intermediate outcomes for participants with health conditions. This would include activities or placements that helped jobseekers with greater needs move closer to the labour market. The potential issue here would be that these types of activities are much harder to measure reliably.

The third – and potentially more straightforward – option would be to offer additional support services that ran alongside the Work Programme. Something like this is already happening, with the DWP commissioning a health focused pilot scheme designed to help those on ESA tackle health related barriers to returning to work. Whilst an important step – and we look forward to the outcomes of the pilot – the government could do more. One example might be the expansion of already existing IAPT services, and speeding up the referral process for people in the Work Programme.

Since the beginning of the Work Programme in 2011, 131,480 people with a mental health condition or a behavioural disorder as their primary health condition have been referred. Of this, only 5,520 have found a sustainable job, leaving nearly 126,000 people remaining in long term unemployment. To ignore these figures and their large associated costs – for the state, society and most of all for the individuals concerned – would be short-sighted as well as wrong.  

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Richard Thomson

24 Mar 2014 9:54PM

The best part of the work programme is that job outcome payments start at 6 months sustainment. The worst side is park or provide methods deployed to chase payments. The real long term economic opportunity is achieved when people with most problems, find and sustain a job but the WP delivers outcomes for the most likely. The WP implementation was a political idealism to remove the rights of the poorest people in our society and this could not have been achieved with the old structures. However so much public expenditure investment has been withdrawn from welfare to work and it won't be re-applied so it's unlikely that we'll see intermediate payment outcomes. I'd argue too that employers prefer to hire the heart and train the brain - so intermediate outcomes are often not all that valuable. This was highlighted in the caveat about intermediate outcome reliability.. For me our only hope is to integrate evidence based employability best practice into, health provision, recovery, justice services and Further Education. However, the most important change would be to protect the poor and develop the most deprived communities.