Major questions have been raised over the government’s plans to support disabled people into work, after two long-awaited reports showed only about 1,000 claimants of disability benefits found work through the scheme in its first year.
The first Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report shows that about 79,000 ESA claimants passed through the Work Programme between its launch in June 2011 and July this year, giving a success rate of just over one per cent.
To be counted in the figures, a disabled benefits claimant needed to stay in a job for only three months, compared with six months for non-disabled job-seekers.
The success rate is slightly higher for former incapacity benefit claimants who had been assessed and found “fit for work”, with just over two per cent of them finding work for at least three months.
The overall figures – which include non-disabled job-seekers – show about 3.5 per cent of those on the scheme found some work.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons public accounts committee, described the overall figures as “shocking” and said the Work Programme – which is aimed at jobseekers who are long-term unemployed or at risk of becoming long-term unemployed – was “falling woefully short of expectations”.
The second DWP report provides possible explanations for the low number of disabled people helped into work, and suggests that the government has underestimated the significant barriers to work faced by many of those forced onto the programme, including those on employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.
The report suggests that the Work Programme has failed to help many of those with the most significant barriers, such as people with mental health conditions.
Some Work Programme advisers told researchers that the scheme’s model of “conditionality” and “sanctioning” had proved to be “not appropriate for individuals with the most significant and complex barriers to employment”.
They reported that some of these participants were “almost unable” to avoid being sanctioned – having their benefits withdrawn for increasing periods of time – because they could not comply with the conditions they had to meet.
The report also suggests that the main Work Programme contractors – most of which are from the private sector – have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of people they are dealing with, and instead of giving those with higher support needs more attention, have given them less, while there has been a lack of funding to address the barriers these clients face.
The Work Programme was designed to deal with this problem by offering higher payments to contractors who found jobs for those who were furthest away from the job market, such as disabled people claiming ESA.
But despite these higher payments, contractors appear instead to have prioritised those who were more “job ready”.
Steve Harry, an employment adviser and a board member of Disability Cornwall, who has 15 years’ experience of helping disabled people into work, said he was not surprised by the conclusions of the two reports.
He said he believed the Work Programme was doomed to fail disabled people and other job-seekers.
Harry said the payment-by-results model meant providers focused on how cheaply they could deliver support and “getting results and getting job outcomes as quickly as possible”.
He said: “The Work Programme does an awful lot if what you need is a CV and how to apply for jobs. If you need more than that it doesn’t really meet your needs.”
He added: “It is not really a serious attempt to help people with significant disabilities back into work.”
A spokesman for the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the trade body for the welfare-to-work industry, said: “The industry does accept that the performance [in finding work]for people on ESA is behind par and more must be done to help these job-seekers find sustainable employment.”
29 November 2012