We can do better

30 April 2015

For well over a year now Ministers have been lauding the increase in jobs and the fall in unemployment, but little noticed in the most recent labour market statistics was an increase in the number of people claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA). In total 2.53 million are now claiming ESA, an increase of 60,000 people over the last 12 months. As usual the ESA numbers are hidden away in the official statistics, with government and media focussing on the (smaller) unemployment figures.

The main programme for ESA claimants is the Work Programme but since it started in June 2011 there have been just 292,000 ESA claimants join it and according to the latest statistics only 8% have secured a sustained job. Beyond ESA there are many more people with disabilities who are out of work – a total of 3.6 million people are disabled and not working. Even on the Work Programme less than half of the disabled people are ESA claimants. By ‘disability’ we mean all of those people that have mental and physical health conditions that limit their ability to work, and half of all those on ESA have mental health problems.

All three main political Parties recognise that something more should be done. The Conservatives say they “will aim to halve the disability employment gap”, Labour “will introduce a specialist support programme” and the LibDems will “simplify and streamline back-to-work support for people with disabilities.” So what needs to happen to make this a reality?

Inclusion worked with 22 organisations to develop radical new proposals in our report Fit for Purpose and in Ten Policies for Ten People we boiled this down to six practical proposals to start the process of reform. First and foremost is separating support for disabled people from the Work Programme. We need to re-structure employment and skills support for disabled people so that it reflects the different levels of support that people need. This would open up the possibility of recognising a greater range of outcomes, including qualifications. A basic principle that will need to run through the design of new policies will be greater ‘personalisation’ – recognising that each person’s combination of health and employability issues is often unique.

To deliver this means that there needs to be a drive for stronger partnerships between employment and skills providers, health services and local support. As a country we have singularly failed to join up these services for the individual. Support delivered by silos is invariably ineffective and inefficient and we need to foster (at all levels) a new capability in our services – one which brings together health, skills and jobs. Making this work for the individual needs highly qualified Personal Advisors, with manageable caseloads, who is there to provide support and not just to administer a welfare benefits.

A more local approach to planning and commissioning services could provide the drive to foster partnerships between health, employment and skills. This is why we propose a clear national framework which will enable new approaches to devolving and pooling budgets. However, in doing this we must not lose sight of the lessons we have already learned through previous programmes, pilots, and local initiatives. Hence our proposal to establish a ‘What Works Unit’ to collect, review and disseminate best practice.

Whilst unemployment may continue to go down, we can’t ignore the larger and increasing numbers on ESA. We can do better for people with health and disability problems but it will take a government which is determined to follow up on their manifesto commitment and understand this should be a national priority rather than an inconvenient statistic to be hidden.

Find out more about this policy area on NIACE’s website or download Ten Policies for Ten People.