The equalities impact of the Work Programme (WP), with mixed performance for different groups, offers some important lessons for future commissioning of employment support in London.
Currently discussions are taking place nationally about the successor to the WP and the opportunity to serve the needs of the capital more effectively by unlocking devolution in the design of future programmes.
The WP is the single largest employment programme ever contracted, replacing a number of separate welfare-to-work programmes based on benefit type. The rationale for a single programme was to achieve greater efficiencies and economies of scale through simplification, while an outcome based payment model shifted risk from the government to the provider.
As such the WP was branded as taking a more joined-up approach, based on the individual rather than their benefit.
This analysis sets out how well that individual is being served by the WP to date and considers the equalities implications of the programme in London with a focus on the four protected characteristics of age, sex, ethnicity and disability.
Evidence of a strong disproportionate impact by age and disability, coupled with sustained underperformance in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimant cohort strengthens concern about the suitability of the WP for supporting claimants with complex needs.
Lessons from the WP suggest that funding, and a subsequent lack of capacity in contracted providers to join up with other services and provide the necessary support, have contributed to poor performance for those with complex needs. If the state is to achieve efficiencies and savings in the administration of the WP, it must first rebalance the factors driving poor performance for those with complex needs and outweigh the longer term costs from having more people with complex needs out of work for longer.
It is those WP completers that do not get a job who look to their local authorities and local support services for help.
Through an innovative and proactive programme of commissioned employment projects across the capital, London local government continues to demonstrate its ability to address complex needs through tailored, local provision while mitigating against future service demand and making savings across the public sector.
However the pressure of reductions to local government spending is making it increasingly untenable for boroughs to fill the gaps in provision left by national employment programmes; especially in London where £8 out of every £10 spent on unemployment provision in 2013 went to projects which were carried out in accordance with national guidelines, such as the WP, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) European Social Fund (ESF) Families Programme and Youth Contract . The successor to the WP must better serve those who face the greatest challenges in finding employment.
The data presented in this analysis makes a clear case for a greatly strengthened and formalised role for local government in the design of any future employment support in London. The expertise and local knowledge of London’s boroughs will ensure all Londoners, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity and disability get a fair chance at finding the job they want.