Lessons from the Work Programme

23 June 2016

In April, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released the ‘Prior Information Notice’ for the Work and Health Programme. Details of the programme – set to become the mainstream employment support programme for claimants with a disability or health condition from 2017 – were sparse. Basic specifications such as the overall funding available were left ambiguous, and with the long-awaited White Paper on reducing the disability employment gap “put on hold”, it is looking increasingly like many key decisions are yet to be finalised. It is timely, therefore, to reflect on the scheme’s predecessor – the Work Programme – to highlight three key areas for the new programme to improve on.

Encouraging innovation

The evidence base on what works in moving people with a health condition into work is limited. The Work Programme was designed to encourage providers to be innovative in their approaches. To this end, it was intended to operate with a ‘black-box’ model where providers are free to deliver the services they deem most effective. In practice, however, the DWP has rigidly insisted that providers deliver the services they laid out in their submission to tender – services which, providers have argued, were supposed only to be a loose outline of their service offer – rather than allowing them to be flexible and responsive to their growing understanding of claimants’ needs. Combined with thin provider profit margins, this has led to minimal innovation in the Work Programme. If the Work and Health Programme is to improve on its predecessor, fetters on innovative services must be removed.

Claimant profiling

The Work Programme assigns participants to different groups intended to reflect their distance from the labour market. Minimum performance levels are applied to several of the groups, and the financial reward available for moving someone into sustained employment varies from group to group. Participants are placed in different groups based largely on whether they are claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and whether they have previously claimed Incapacity Benefit (IB).

A system of claimant profiling is clearly necessary to set reasonable performance targets and payment levels. However, it is widely agreed that segmenting based primarily on the benefit a person is claiming is a crude, and often inaccurate, measure of how far away from work a person is. This has led to providers ‘parking’ some claimants who they deem to be harder to help than their payment group would suggest. To ensure the hardest to help are not again left behind, the new programme must make use of a more sophisticated profiling mechanism.

Helping everyone

The amount of funding available for the very hardest-to-help claimants has also contributed to a system whereby many receive little assistance from providers. Even in cases where the claimant segmentation accurately places a claimant in the hardest-to-help group, evidence suggests the financial incentives for providers to invest sufficient time and money in helping them find work are poor. Moreover, David Freud in his 2007 independent review estimated the value to the Exchequer of moving a long-term IB claimant into work and keeping them there for eight years at £62,000. With ESA claim durations likely to match those of IB, the case for the Government increasing investment to move the hardest to help into work is clear.

These problems are well rehearsed, and are undoubtedly being considered as ministers and officials work to define the new programme. With a pledge to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, the Government’s new Work and Health Programme will have to deliver a radical improvement in outcomes for ESA claimants. Addressing these problems alone will not deliver the required scale of change, but will make meaningful strides towards improving the employment support offer. A forthcoming Reform report will explore this further.

Ben Dobson, Researcher, Reform

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