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This Isn’t Working: reimagining employment support for people facing complex disadvantage

October 27, 2020   By Tom Pollard and
In partnership with

Millions of people find it difficult, or even impossible, to work due to the impact of disabilities and long-term health conditions. It’s a number that looks set to rise.

But the current employment support system, managed by the DWP, can often do more harm than good, leaving people distressed and fearful, and only helping to lift 4% of the group into work every year.

In this new report, Tom Pollard and Pawda Tjoa argue that there is another way. Using examples of current good work, they present the case for a new, community-based approach to employment support.

Read our executive summary below, download the full report, listen to our podcast and read Tom’s introductory blog on how a secondment with DWP informed his calls for system overhaul.

Listen to our podcast
Watch our panel discussion video

Millions of people find it difficult, or even impossible, to work due to the impact of disabilities and long-term health conditions. This is often part of a complex picture of wider social disadvantages, which can include issues such as poverty, loneliness and isolation, problems with housing, drug and alcohol addiction, and contact with the criminal justice system.

This has been compounded by record levels of unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. People who have been out of work for a long time due to this kind of complex disadvantage face not only their existing barriers to employment, but are also now at the back of a queue of millions of people who will find it easier to move into a job.

Even during periods of low unemployment, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has a poor record of supporting this group into work – only around four per cent of those on associated benefits move into employment each year. The system DWP oversees has also often made people’s lives more difficult, exacerbating the stress and anxiety many already live with. Without major reform, the financial costs and human impact will continue to mount. It’s time to radically rethink support for this group.

The most dynamic and effective responses to the coronavirus crisis have been facilitated by collaboration between local government, public services, the third sector, businesses and communities — adding to a growing evidence base for the value of locally coordinated responses to complex challenges. This points the way to a different approach for designing and delivering employment support for people facing complex disadvantage.

Through interviews with a range of providers and local government commissioners from across England and Wales who are involved in delivering employment support for people facing complex disadvantage, our research identifies what is already working well at a local level:

  1. Providers build the type of relationships needed to help people move towards employment.
  2. Providers and commissioners understand their local communities and ecosystems of support.
  3. Local services work well together in partnership to meet people’s needs.
  4. Services work with local employers to proactively develop opportunities for employment.

We also identify the barriers standing in the way of better support and outcomes:

  1. Narrow and short-term contracts constrain the quality of services.
  2. DWP commissioning favours larger national providers delivering more generic support.
  3. Previous attempts at devolution have not allowed for sufficient local innovation.
  4. Services and local ecosystems of support are severely under-resourced.
  5. The current system creates barriers to effective joint working.
  6. DWP practice and reputation undermines the ability of providers to support people.

Recommendations for local areas

  • Local areas need to be bold and ambitious in developing and delivering strategies for community-led services, even in the absence of national backing.
    Local areas can take the lead in delivering the transformation needed to transition towards a community-led approach. This would realise the benefits and demonstrate the value of services commissioned, designed and delivered in collaboration with the people they support.
  • Local strategies for community-led services should be developed at the most appropriate level and scale for that area.
    In many areas, local authorities will be the most appropriate conveners of local strategies for how services are commissioned, designed and delivered. But some areas may benefit more from a combination of regional and more micro strategies. All relevant local stakeholders should be involved.
  • Employment should be embedded as a cross-cutting objective within local strategies for community-led services.
    Local strategies should address residents’ core needs and aspirations – including employment – and recognise that the services which support these needs are inherently interconnected. Convening agencies should also look to shape local employment opportunities.
  • Community participation, particularly among those in need of support, should be actively encouraged and facilitated at every stage of service design and delivery.
    Communities should be involved not only in strategy development but in the design and delivery of services. This should be fostered by convening agencies through community engagement and capacity
  • Funding and evaluation should promote holistic, collaborative, community-led support.
    Providers should have a flexible and dynamic relationship with funders as they work together towards achieving the broad objectives of the local strategy. Longer-term and less prescriptive contracts will help services to invest in development and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • DWP should no longer be responsible for providing employment support for people on Employment and Support Allowance and the equivalent groups in Universal Credit.
    DWP should step back from its assumed responsibility for providing employment support to people facing complex disadvantage. Only by meaningfully shifting this responsibility to local areas will we see the full benefits of a community-led approach.
  • For people facing complex disadvantage, DWP should focus on providing financial security.
    Benefits should be set at a sufficient level for people facing complex disadvantage to meet their needs over an extended period of unemployment. Support should be easier to access, with local services able to verify people’s needs, and should prioritise stability.
  • Power and resources to support people facing complex disadvantage with employment should be shifted from Whitehall to local areas.
    DWP’s budget for employment support for this group, along with the replacement for the European Social Fund, should be handed over to local areas to resource local strategies. Local areas should share DWP and Treasury savings where people move from benefits into work.
  • Devolution should actively foster a more communityled approach to employment support for people facing complex disadvantage.
    The Government should commit to devolving resources and responsibilities over the course of a Parliament. It should work collaboratively with local areas to realise this commitment through a time-limited dedicated unit with the experience and expertise to foster community-led approaches.
  • National economic and social policy should help foster a more inclusive economy.
    To support local efforts to create more inclusive economies, central government should take action such as strengthening rights for disabled people at work, and consider bold measures like funding guaranteed job offers for people facing complex disadvantage.

Help us make this vision a reality

By addressing fundamental barriers within the current system, the shift to a community-led approach could revolutionise the support available to people facing complex disadvantage. This is not just about employment, but the whole range of people’s interconnected needs and aspirations.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, this shift is even more critical to avoid this group being left further behind. But it is also more tangible, as local responses to the pandemic, the Government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’, and a widespread desire to ‘build back better’ all point the way to local areas being resourced and empowered to address complex challenges.

In this report, we have tried to offer a bold vision of what this could mean for employment support for this group. We hope this provides inspiration and impetus to help drive reform forward. We look forward to the ongoing debate, to working with those who want to deliver this vision, and to seeing the positive impact on the lives of those supported.

October 27, 2020
Authored by

Tom Pollard and
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