Revolving Doors Agency is a policy, research and evaluation organisation concerned with people in contact with the criminal justice system who have multiple and complex needs. A typical combination may be offending plus one or more of substance misuse, mental ill health, and housing problems. Very often these disadvantages will be compounded by severe labour market disadvantage and we know that the more problems someone has, the less likely they are to be in paid employment. Research carried out last year on behalf of Lankelly Chase found that for people affected by all three of substance misuse, homelessness and offending, only 6% are in paid employment and a further 3% in education or training.

While the numbers affected by complex and multiple needs aren’t huge – around 60,000 people affected by all of substance misuse, homelessness and offending, the number of people with one of those needs (plus mental ill health) or more is substantially larger. For example, there are around 300,000 people who misuse opiates and crack cocaine, and the avoidable annual cost may be somewhere between £10,000 and over £20,000 per person. That cost, plus the inequity of entrenched worklessness and concomitant elevated poverty rates, are what has focussed government attention on supporting people with complex needs back to work – whether through specialist programmes like Progress2work-LinkUP or through piloting of different approaches and incentives as part of mainstream provision.  Change has been limited and slow, though.

Part of the problem might be found in the answer to the question of what works in employment support. We know from big meta analyses of labour market programmes that the UK system – services and sanctions – is effective and cost effective when applied to the whole unemployed population – although as with any policy choice, there are trade-offs involved – for example in the differences between short and long term effect sizes. Some might also say that in the UK, the emphasis has been more on sanctions than services, with some adverse consequences.

Where things get a little more complex is around what works best for claimants with serious labour market disadvantage. Approaches like Individual Placement and Support appear to be achieving good results in the few mental health services where it’s available, and look promising for other cohorts, such as people with barriers relating to substance misuse. Alongside the possibilities offered by administrative data, there is at least one further option – ask the people who use the service.

Having worked in homelessness and substance misuse, it still strikes me as odd that  some employment support providers seem to take relatively little interest in how their clients view the service they receive. One way of learning more about what your clients and customers think of your service is through peer research – an increasingly popular approach to designing and delivering social research.

We’ve recently published a review of the evidence around peer research. It shows that the potential of peer research is wide-ranging and can break down boundaries between those deemed ‘experts’ and people who have directly experienced multiple problems and long-term exclusion. Traditionally, the right to create knowledge is dependent on power: often people from marginalised groups are denied the right to be experts on their own lives. Peer research has the potential to reverse this imbalance. It also, in the context of employment support, can provide the researcher with valuable training, skills, experience and confidence.

The paper will be followed by a series of ‘peer reviewed’ case studies authored by our National Service User Forum, and a toolkit on running peer research projects with people on probation. To find out more about our peer research projects, get in touch.

Paul Anders, Policy Manager, Revolving Doors