People with disabilities will be further from work after COVID – it’s time to reform the system

April 24, 2020  |  By Pawda Tjoa, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN

If you live in the UK today and have a disability, you are twice as likely to be unemployed than someone who is not disabled – a fact so well-known that it has been named the ‘disability employment gap’ by policy makers. This gap recently shows tentative signs of closing: between 2013 and 2019, employment for disabled adults rose at a faster rate of 9.8 per cent than for those without disabilities at only 4.2 per cent.

That however, was before the pandemic – a crisis that will almost certainly reverse that progress. The developments of recent weeks have highlighted the fragility of our economy and lives – and as always, this is especially true for people whose lives were more fragile to begin with.

Almost half a million people have signed on to claim benefits over a nine-day period near the end of March, just as news of a potential nation-wide lockdown broke. In February 2020, the UK saw the highest increase in unemployment rate since late 2011, to 4 per cent, having held steady at 3.8 per cent for some time. People with disabilities may be more vulnerable to this as they are more likely to work part time and hold junior roles – the types of jobs that have fewer job securities and are more vulnerable to lay-offs. As for those who didn’t have a job when the crisis began, as the employed become unemployed, the already unemployed are pushed to the back of the queue, further away from employment.

For those experiencing complex social disadvantage, such as long-term disabilities and mental health issues, finding a job must be more daunting than ever in a market that is becoming increasingly saturated with new jobseekers in the wake of this pandemic.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has long been criticised for neglecting those who were farthest from employment. The additional pressure brought about by the crisis has further exposed the weaknesses of the existing system that in reality have been there all along.

Being now inundated with the unprecedented surge in social security claimants —with nearly a million new Universal Credit claims by early April— the DWP has shown itself capable of working in new ways, redeploying 10,000 staff to help and recruiting more to help deal with the unprecedented surge in numbers of new claims. However, it now has very little capacity beyond administering benefit payments, therefore incapable of prioritising those who experience multiple barriers to employment.

To really deal with these challenging new times, and the disastrous impact they will have on so many people’s ability to find work, the DWP needs to find a completely new way of operating, and the response to this crisis has unexpectedly opened the perfect opportunity to consider how we can work now to lay the foundation for a different future of support for those experiencing multiple barriers into employment.

This is where a community-led approach should come in. The response by the government so far through its call for NHS volunteers, further reinforces the pertinence of community mobilisation, and the strength of the community model. The role of wider community network in partnership with the councils, can make a substantial difference to many lives, and not simply during a time of crisis. These community models should be given greater credence, support and resources to grow and do so much more for the benefit of their local areas.

Those with expertise and experience in supporting people with complex needs into work know that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. A more effective approach will address the holistic need of individuals building relationships of trust and maintaining a long-term interest in a someone’s well-being and their wider community.

The research that Tom Pollard and I are working on has found that community groups that operate in close coordination with local partners, appear best placed to deliver these services and are also likely to be more resilient to the impact of the economic downturn that will follow this pandemic. But how would employment support become better integrated within a local ecosystem of support? And how can a community-led approach in providing a holistic ecosystem of support be further maximised and mainstreamed for the benefit of local communities?

To begin to answer these questions, we have interviewed 25 individuals from the council, employers and community groups, including those working on the frontline to learn about the main challenges they face in supporting those with complex needs into work in their local areas. These have revealed both the key challenges and early lessons, for example around effective joint working and co-production. Today we brought together some of these key players who are at the forefront of this important work to a research workshop to imagine what an alternative future might look like, and what kinds of support and infrastructure would enable them to get there.

Our final report which will explore this in greater detail is due to be published this summer. If you wish to be kept in touch, please email ptjoa@newlocal.org.uk

The project is kindly supported by Lloyds Bank Foundation.