Last week I spoke at the launch of the Work Foundation’s new report ‘Is welfare to work, working well? Improving employment rates for people with disabilities and long-term conditions’.
People with long-term conditions (LTCs) and disabilities experience disproportionately low employment rates relative to their peers without health conditions; 46.1% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to a 73.5% national rate.
Such figures belie the fact that many people with health conditions want to work, would be able to given appropriate support, and could derive significant personal and economic benefit from doing so.
The approach to improving employment outcomes necessarily looks both at the way we support people to find work, and to retain work. The Work Foundation’s paper focusses on the former – reflecting on how current welfare-to-work provision is working for those whose health may be barrier, and highlighting how support might be improved in its next iteration, e.g. through the proposed ‘Work and Health Programme’.
In reviewing current national and local provision, the Work Foundation has identified good practice, and concerns and challenges – with the Work Programme in particular highlighted as not working for people with health conditions – before making recommendations for changes which they believe will improve support and employment outcomes for the 1 in 3 working age people with long-term health conditions in the UK today.
In my speech responding to the report and it’s recommendations, I commented on how I found the contextual analysis of active labour market policies in the UK thorough, although it may have been useful to contrast this with international comparisons. For example, although all EU member states support active labour market policies, their approaches differ.
In addition I think we also need to reflect on the drive for ‘flexible’ labour markets and what this means for supporting people with LTCs back into work, and most probably, out of work, and then back into work and so on. There also needs to be a recognition of geographical variations of not only of LTCs but also of the strength of the economy and the availability of jobs. There is a clear evidence that the prevalence and geographical pattern of sick and disabled people reflects the industrial heritage of our country. Contrary to the Government’s shirkers and scroungers narrative, Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance are recognised as good population health indicators.
What is also clear is that local economic conditions – whether the economy is thriving or not – will determine how readily people with LTCs will return to work. Again, geographical analysis shows that people with equivalent conditions in the economically buoyant London and South East are more likely to be in work that those in the North East, North West or Wales.
Although I appreciate the Work Foundation’s report is focusing on back to work support, policymakers must not look at this in isolation of national and local industrial strategies. We must also ensure that interventions work. There has to be an evidence-base to support the significant public investment into these approaches, rather than their being driven by political whim, as we’re now seeing with the roll out of ‘in-work conditionality’.
The report highlights how ineffective current interventions are in helping support people with long term conditions back into work. Although the specialist support programme, Work Choice, has been shown to be much more effective than the generic Work Programme, the DWP’s own evaluation has shown that this is far from impressive.
Also, studies on longer-running welfare to work programmes in the US indicate that it is difficult to attribute the transition from social security to employment to these interventions rather than favourable economic and labour market conditions; and any increases in employment were usually into low paid, poor quality jobs with limited earnings growth potential or employment retention prospects.
We therefore must ensure that recommendations to support people with LTCs back into work are coupled with recommendations for a growing economy committed to tackling labour market inequalities.
I visited a number of specialist programmes when I was a member of the Select Committee and although I was impressed with those that I saw I was conscious that they didn’t necessarily represent the experience of the majority of people and certainly not the constituents and others from around the country who contact me.
You can read the Work Foundation’s report in full here