For jobseekers facing complex disadvantage, the DWP just isn’t working

October 27, 2020   By Tom Pollard, Mental health policy expert

Over 2 million people are out of work due to health conditions and disabilities. But each year, only 4% move into employment. Introducing new research This Isn’t Working, Tom Pollard argues that support for this group should lie with local areas, and not the ‘deeply damaging’ DWP-led system.

Hundreds of thousands of people have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and millions face more uncertainty this winter. The ensuing debate has mostly focused on how to support people who are newly unemployed. But for over 2 million people who are long-term unemployed as result of disabilities and health conditions, the picture is even bleaker. As well as the complex disadvantages they face in trying to find work, they now also find themselves at the back of a huge and growing queue. 

Support for this group from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has not only proven ineffective, but for many people has been inappropriate, disruptive and stressful. In our new report, ‘This isn’t working: Reimagining employment support  for people facing complex disadvantage‘, Pawda Tjoa and I argue for a fundamental overhaul. We suggest that a community-powered approach could dramatically improve both people’s experiences and their prospects of moving into employment. 

Back in 2018, I finished an 18-month secondment at the Department from Work and Pensions (DWP), advising on how to better support people with mental health problems. I was so disillusioned with what I had experienced that I decided to take a couple of years away from policy work and train as a mental health social worker. I also wrote a paper for the think tank Demos explaining why I felt DWP was incapable of addressing the complex disadvantage experienced by people in long-term unemployment because of disabilities and health conditions. 

“we need to fundamentally recast the relationship between the welfare state and people”

Two years on, my experience of supporting some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in society has left me even more convinced that we need to fundamentally recast the relationship between the welfare state and people in these circumstances. The DWP-led approach of linking employment support to benefit entitlement, and centrally dictating how that support is delivered, has failed to produce outcomes and has been deeply damaging to millions of people facing complex disadvantage. 

Working within a local ‘ecosystem’ of support, I have seen how local authorities, the NHS and the third sector try to respond to the range of challenges people are experiencing with their health, housing, finances, employment and general quality of life. These ecosystems are far from perfect – they are under resourced, overstretched, and often lack coordination. But the services involved recognise that the challenges people are facing are intrinsically interconnected and cannot be addressed in isolation.

These local services have another thing in common. Most will tell you that DWP’s impact on their work and the people they support is disruptive and unhelpful. Staff spend huge amounts of their time supporting people through onerous assessment processes, or picking up the pieces when someone loses their financial support. From within local ecosystems, DWP feels like an outside agent, firmly rooted in Whitehall rather than the local community. With its narrow focus on the cost of benefits, the complex challenges people are facing become simply ‘barriers to employment’.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. Local ecosystems of support should be given the responsibility and resources to support people facing complex disadvantage to meet their needs, including around employment. This support should be designed and delivered in collaboration with the communities who will use it, rather than imposed on them by people with little meaningful experience of the challenges they face. DWP should focus on making it as straightforward as possible for this group to access financial support and ongoing security, which is what people need if they are to achieve change and progress. 

“DWP feels like an outside agent, firmly rooted in Whitehall rather than the local community” 

Our research for the report found that local organisations around the country are already providing the type of personalised and relational support needed to help people overcome the disadvantages they face. Charities are mentoring people through the process of leaving prison and back into work; staff in NHS mental health teams are supporting people to consider getting a job for the first time; and local authorities developing strategies to coordinate these sort of services, in collaboration with local residents. 

However, these organisations are constrained by the parameters of the DWP-led system they have to work within, which denies them the flexibility and long-term funding needed to respond to people’s needs and aspirations more fully. This system also fails to provide people facing complex disadvantage with the confidence and security they need, and often undermines their trust in employment support. 

With DWP understandably focused on those who have fallen out of work due to the pandemic, it seems even less likely that people experiencing longer term unemployment because of disabilities and health conditions will get the support they need. It is time to resource and empower local ecosystems of support and the people they serve to design and deliver a fundamentally different approach. Such a shift could help millions of people to take more control over their lives with the support of services rooted in their communities and responsive to their needs and aspirations.