The Department for Work Pensions (the Department) has limited evidence of what works when it comes to supporting disabled people to work, according to the National Audit Office (NAO) in its report published today. The number of disabled people in work has risen by 930,000 (31%) in the last five years, but this has not been matched by a reduction in the number of disabled people who are out of work.
The NAO found that the government’s headline goal of getting 1 million more disabled people into work from 2017 to 2027 cannot be used to measure the success of its efforts. The Department itself recognises that this measure cannot be linked directly to any specific government policy or programme. Broader factors, such as more people who are already in work reporting a disability, and rising employment rates, have a significant effect on the measure. It therefore lacks a target for which it is willing to be held to account.
The Department set its goal as part of a 10-year strategy on work, health and disability. The NAO found that two years into this strategy, it has not yet developed detailed proposals in key areas or an implementation plan covering the full 10 years. The Department has established a Work and Health Unit as a useful first step towards cross government collaboration on supporting disabled people to work.
The 1 million goal replaced the government’s 2015 goal to halve the disability employment gap1. That gap has only narrowed by 4 percentage points since 2015 and is still high at 30 percentage points. The potential demand for the Department’s support is substantial, with at least 600,000 disabled people classified by the Department as fit for work, or fit for work related activity.
The NAO has found that despite the Department’s decades of experience supporting disabled people it does not yet know as much as it could about what works in helping disabled people to get and keep jobs. It has also missed opportunities over the years to assess the impact and cost-effectiveness of its programmes, leaving it with limited evidence to support its current efforts.
The Department has now renewed its commitment to improving its understanding of this issue and trialling new approaches. The NAO welcomes this focus on evidence but warns that turning the results of trials into a clear and funded strategy for more transformational change will not necessarily be straightforward. There may not be a silver bullet and the results of many of the Department’s trials will also not be ready until at least 2020 which is likely to be too late to feed into the next spending review or deliver “transformation” by the Department’s promised date of 2022.
As part of rolling out Universal Credit, the Department has said it wants to create a more supportive environment and culture in which work coaches, who are the front-line staff in job centres, deliver personalised and tailored support to claimants. In practical terms, this means engaging with claimants to: understand their circumstances to help assess their barriers to work; agree appropriate goals; refer claimants to specialist employment support and tailor the conditionality regime for their benefits.
But the NAO warns that work coaches can only be expected to do so much. Disabled claimants often have multiple and complex barriers to work. Under Universal Credit, disabled claimants normally see a generalist work coach. While work coaches have considerable discretion in how they interact with claimants, their training in disability issues or formal coaching techniques is limited. The Department has funded additional specialist staff to help work coaches understand claimants’ needs and the range of support options available. Work coaches told the NAO that they valued this support highly.
The Department now believes its previous target-driven culture created perverse incentives, encouraging work coaches to focus on those who were easiest to help into work, even if their employment was only temporary. Since 2017 it has stopped local reporting of targets and performance measures at job centres to try to create a more supportive environment tailored to claimants’ needs.
The Department’s approach to monitoring job centre performance leaves it with gaps in its understanding of how its job centres are providing services to disabled people. For example, it cannot assess the claimant commitments, the goals that each claimant and their work coach agree under Universal Credit, without reviewing each case, so it cannot assess whether disabled people are treated consistently between jobcentres or over time.
There is also a risk that as work coaches’ caseloads increase, service might worsen. The number of claimants each work coach is responsible for is expected to increase from around 130 currently to over 280 as more people move onto Universal Credit. Within this, the number of claimants per work coach in the intensive work search group (who require the most time with work coaches) is expected to increase from 96 to 133 (an increase of 39%). There is some evidence that indicates more time spent with disabled claimants leads to better employment outcomes. It is not clear that work coaches will be able to maintain the amount of time spent with claimants who have barriers to work, let alone meet the Department’s aim of increasing time with disabled people who are furthest away from working.