In 2017, the government set a goal to see 1 million more disabled people in work in the 10 years to 2027. The Department for Work & Pensions (the Department) and the Department of Health & Social Care also produced a command paper, Improving Lives, to support this.

This set out activity across health, welfare, employment and wider partnership settings. The government considers that helping people into work will benefit them through increased income, better life chances and better health, and that this will save public money.  

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 "Supporting disabled people to work" published today (28 Mar).

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.

10-year strategy on work, health and disability

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 gap. 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.

Universal Credit

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.

Monitoring job centre performance

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.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said:

“I welcome the Department for Work and Pensions’ renewed commitment to focus on improving the culture of its job centres and its evidence base. But, with that said, given it has been supporting disabled people to work for a long time, it is not beyond reason to expect the Department to know ‘what works’ by now and it is disappointing that it does not. It has yet to make a significant dent in the number of disabled people who are out of work, some of whom say they would like to work given the right support.”

Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), said:

“Disabled people are twice as likely to be out of work as those who aren’t disabled - and despite manifesto commitments, green papers and white papers those odds have barely changed over the last decade. 

“So today's report is a welcome reminder that while employment has reached record levels, the inequalities faced by disabled people have not changed.  The NAO rightly gives the government credit for their investment in building the evidence base on 'what works' and improving the quality of support from work coaches and advisers. 

“But as Amber Rudd has acknowledged, we need much greater ambition and a clear and longer term strategy. For example on current plans, just 1 per cent of out-of-work disabled people each year will access the government's flagship disability employment programme, and the two million people out of work due to long-standing health conditions usually receive no employment support at all. 

“In our view, a new approach should be built on three things: working in partnership, with disabled people and across services and sectors; building on what works and is working, both for those in and out of work; and using the Spending Review to make the case for more and better investment in the future.”

Key facts

  • 7.6m disabled people of working age (16-64) in the UK in the final quarter of 2018
  • 1m increase in the number of disabled people the government wants to see in employment by 2027, compared to 2017
  • 930,000 increase in the number of disabled people in employment over the five years from 2013 to 2018
  • 30 percentage points is the disability employment ‘gap’ between the employment rate for disabled people (51.5%) and non-disabled people (81.7%) in the final quarter of 2018*
  • Around 2.4 million people claiming out-of-work incapacity benefits or Universal Credit equivalents as at May 2018
  • At least 600,000 people claiming Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit equivalents, or those claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance with a self-reported disability that the Department expects to seek work or undertake work-related activity as at May 2018
  • £386 million is the amount the Department spent on employment support programmes and jobcentre-based support for disabled people in 2017-18 Around £15 billion Is the amount spent on working-age incapacity benefits in 2017-18  

*The disability employment gap is the difference in the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people.

Content and scope of the report

This report is about the Department’s support to help disabled people overcome barriers to work. It examines the Department’s:

  • strategy, working across government, for supporting disabled people to work, and what is currently being achieved (Part One);
  • employment support programmes for disabled people and its approach to developing the evidence base (Part Two); and
  • efforts to improve the way it engages with disabled people in jobcentres (Part Three).

We do not cover how disabled people access, or are incentivised to work by, the benefit system. We published our latest report on contracted-out health and disability assessments in January 2016.  

Report conclusions

The Department has recognised that it does not understand enough to frame a full implementation strategy for helping more disabled people to work. It is positive that it is making an effort to improve disabled people’s experience when they enter a jobcentre.

It is also positive that it is starting to work more closely with the Department of Health & Social Care to improve the evidence base of what works. And it is positive that there has been recent growth in the number of disabled people in work.

However, neither we nor the Department can tell how much of the improvement is a function of changes in how people already in work report disability, ‘all boats rising with the tide’ of high employment, or its actions to support more disabled people to work.

Given the Department has had programmes in place to support disabled people for over half a century, it is disappointing that it is not further ahead in knowing what works and that it lacks a target that it is willing to be held to account for.

While the commitment to gathering evidence is welcome, until it has a clear understanding of what works, and a plan to use that evidence, it is not possible to say the Department is achieving value for money.

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