Employment was at the centre of the Chancellor’s first budget with tighter conditions for benefit claimants and several measures attempting to bring back into the workforce those who are not working, particularly focusing on the over-50s. The health and disability white paper that was published alongside it will be scrapping the work capability assessment- joyous news for many welfare organisations who have seen it cause confusion and pain to benefit claimants with medical conditions.
The Government will also be introducing a ‘Universal Support’ programme to help people with disabilities who want to work access jobs suitable for them. This comes alongside more support with mental health and musculoskeletal conditions, funding employment advisers in health settings, extending pilots to subsidise occupational health for SMEs and new pilots of ‘WorkWell Partnerships’ to join up health and employment locally. This is a welcome focus; we know that these conditions can contribute to long-term sickness absence and disability. According to a report by the Work Foundation in 2016, musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions are among the most common reasons for people to leave work due to ill-health or disability.
All these measures of course aim to boost productivity and tackle those well documented problems that are preventing people from being in work when they want to be. When seen together with the extra childcare announced as the headliner of the budget, it serves as recognition of how expensive it is to live and work in the UK in 2023, considering the increasing cost of living including transport, food, Wi-Fi and energy.
Concerns around sanctions
While taking one step forward with these measures, it is disappointing to see the Government taking two steps back with the stronger sanctions and tighter conditions for working-age benefit recipients. Both the sentiment and the substance of these changes goes against what the employment sector knows to be effective strategies to encourage people back into work.
Several studies have shown that benefit sanctions can have negative consequences, such as increased financial hardship and worsened mental health, without necessarily leading to increased employment rates. For example, a report by the National Audit Office in 2016 found that there was no clear evidence that benefit sanctions were effective in helping people move into work. Similarly, a review by the Work and Pensions Committee in 2018 concluded that benefit sanctions were “ineffective and damaging”. We know that there are structural factors, such as the availability of suitable jobs and access to training and support, that are more important in determining employment outcomes than individual motivation or compliance with benefit conditionality. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2018 found that a lack of suitable jobs and skills gaps were major barriers to employment for low-income workers in the UK.
A missed opportunity
The Government missed an opportunity to improve employer services and revive Job Centre Plus. What we already know works is well designed partnerships with employers, where they identify their skills gaps and customise employment programmes to fill those gaps. Employability services must take into consideration the needs and wants of the individual and help them settle into sustainable careers that they will want to stay in for the long term. This requires nurturing personal connections, with both employer and future employee, not sanctions and stricter treatment of people who are likely already struggling to jump through hoops.
– Stella Tsantekidou, Head of Policy and Campaigns