The results of the government’s Welfare-to-Work scheme have so far been underwhelming. Robert Trotter points out that it is those that are in greatest need that are being disproportionately let down, as providers continue to operate a high volume business model dealing mainly with those who are relatively simpler to place. Changing the funding structure, improving the assessment and greater personalisation are potential avenues for improvement.
It may be too early for the last rites, but the life signs from the Work Programme are not good. Last November’s performance statistics underscored how challenging the programme has been to implement. The Public Accounts Committee has questioned the scheme’s value for money. And last week, a new report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee asks yet more questions about the scheme’s performance, concluding that those with the highest needs are being supported the least.
Delving deeper, the numbers certainly don’t bode well. The available figures show that just 3.5% of people on the scheme got a job, compared with the 5.5% DWP expected. For the long-term unemployed – supposedly the programme’s target group – the prognosis is even worse, with only 1.3% in work after the first 14 months. To this bleak picture the Committee’s report adds the damning detail that job outcomes are so low that the programme actually has an under-spend of £248 million.
The following debate about why the numbers are so bad is bitter. Facing criticism of the scheme, DWP – protected by the transfer of risk to their supply chain – can simply shrug and point to the failings of providers, who now have the freedom to succeed or fail with whatever methods they choose. For the Government, this is a crucial part of shifting delivery to the private sector, and the Committee’s report echoes Mark Hoban’s position that over the long-term weak providers are not expected to improve but to fail.
Providers, understandably, view this as unfair. They point to the considerable problems that dogged set-up of the programme; to the weak economy; to the lower than expected numbers of clients; to the fact that they can be paid much less than what it actually costs to place people in work.
But amongst all the mud-slinging are those on the scheme, and last week’s report makes clear that they are being undeniably let down. Disabled people and other groups with high support needs are being left behind, as providers appear to be operating a high volume business model dealing mainly with those who are relatively simpler to place. The Committee conclude that if you want to work but need a lot of support, the Work Programme is unlikely to be there for you.
So what is to be done?
Change the funding structures: The Committee take the fairly bold step of opening out the debate on payment by results, and recommend strongly that DWP review the way they fund the programme. They argue strongly that despite being linked to higher ‘prices’, disabled people are simply not seen as a cost-effective client group for providers. Some analysts have argued that the prices aren’t right and that increasing the incentives would improve performance. But the Committee are sceptical of this position, and recommend alternative funding structures including higher up-front payments – a softening of the radical use of payment by results in the current programme.
Improve the assessment: Disabled people’s path onto the scheme is currently determined only by the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). But the well-documented problems with the scheme show that the WCA is ill-designed for the task and remains a flawed and damaging experience for claimants. As the Telegraph argued last week, the test doesn’t account for the other support needs disabled people have, such as being supported with transport, managing conditions, or being directed to appropriate training or skills development.
The lack of an accurate assessment of needs can lead to confusion in the system and means many clients requiring specialist support simply don’t receive it. The disability charity Scope has recommended introducing a different type of assessment to the WCA that doesn’t just test medical capability but focuses instead on health or work-related needs. The Committee endorse this, and in the long term call for a renewed emphasis on needs-based assessment.
Greater personalisation: ‘Personalisation’ is a welcome part of the Work Programme. By allowing providers greater flexibility over the services they deliver, it was meant to provide support services tailored to individual needs. Given that the Committee report caseloads of around 120-180 jobseekers per adviser, it is unlikely that this is happening. At the very least, encouraging providers to seek out good practice from social care – where there is decades of experience in personalisation – would begin to make a difference. Long term, there needs to be far greater understanding of how to drive more personalised services that are built around the individual not the benefit type.
Ultimately, we’re unlikely to see substantive changes to the Work Programme anytime soon. The contracts are too complex, and the election is too near to risk jettisoning such a flagship policy. The Government are trying to make changes to the programme. But ahead of the next round of performance statistics next month, this new report is a timely reminder that for disabled people at least, there remain too few signs of improvement for this ailing programme.
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Robert Trotter leads on employment and skills policy for the disability charity Scope (@rob_trotter).