The failure of Work Programme contractors to provide enough employment support to disabled people and other “harder-to-help” benefit claimants is “a scandal”, according to the chair of an influential committee of MPs.
Labour MP Margaret Hodge said the government’s decision to pay companies more if they found jobs for those further away from the employment market had failed to prevent them focusing on those people who were easier to help.
This meant that contractors often “parked” harder-to-help claimants, particularly disabled people, including those with mental health conditions.
Hodge’s comments came as her public accounts committee published a new report into the performance of the Work Programme.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) pays contractors across England, Scotland and Wales to support people into long‑term employment, using a payment‑by‑results approach. It eventually expects to refer more than two million people to the Work Programme.
But the committee said the programme had found jobs for only about one in nine (11 per cent) claimants of the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA), compared to its original “expectation” of 22 per cent.
Hodge said: “Data from Work Programme providers shows that they are, on average, spending less than half what they originally promised on these harder‑to‑help groups.
“It is a scandal that some of those in greatest need of support are not getting the help they need to get them back to work and are instead being parked by providers because their case is deemed just too hard.
“The department must do more to encourage providers to work with harder-to-help groups by tackling poorly-performing prime contractors and sharing information on what works.
“It should also collect and publish information from each provider on how much they are spending on different payment groups.”
The committee concluded that the performance of the Work Programme was improving, after a slow start, but that there was “a long way to go before it is working effectively for all”.
The committee also expressed concern about DWP’s “sanctions” regime.
Hodge said: “Sanctions can cause significant financial hardship to individuals, and it is not clear whether the sanctions regime actually works in encouraging people on the Work Programme to engage with the support offered by providers.”
She said that anecdotal evidence suggested that the use of sanctions had been increasing, while the company Seetec had referred more claimants for sanction than any other provider.
Hodge called for DWP to monitor whether providers were referring the right people to DWP for possible sanction and “that they are not causing unfair hardship”.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the report’s publication, and said: “This damning report shows what we already knew – that disabled people are being sanctioned and penalised but not offered effective support to get work.
“Pushing people through a tough assessment of work capability and then giving no decent support to get work is unconscionable.
“It’s time for a radical re-think – put the power and resources for support to get work in the hands of disabled people and employers and then we might see solutions that actually work. And don’t compel people to be part of a programme with a 90 per cent failure rate.”
Last month, DNS reported how ESA claimant Catherine Hale had criticised the government’s failure to apologise for the “discrimination and punishment” she faced on the Work Programme.
Hale had more than £70 a week of her disability benefit stripped from her for three months because she could not attend a Seetec back-to-work workshop that a government assessment had already concluded would be inaccessible to her.
Hale is the author of a review which found that the back-to-work support provided to disabled people by the government actually pushes them further away from the jobs market.
6 November 2014