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Elizabeth Taylor writes exclusively for FE News, the following was originally posted on 4 October here.
On 23rd September, the Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced a shakeup of the benefits system to “get Britain working again” as part of a series of headline-grabbing announcements to boost economic growth.
Within the employment support sector there is disappointment that the role providers can play has not been recognised.
The government announcement did acknowledge that there are people under employed – working few hours and/or on low income – and that there are people who need additional support to get into work, but its solutions are limited. The blinkered stance on unemployed people seemingly only existing in the realms of Jobcentre Plus offices is disappointing, and the new rules for those people in work and on Universal Credit seem to involve more stick that carrot, when people need more support not pressure.
In the current climate of concern about the rising cost of living, this is the time to harness the help of organisations who have the expertise to engage people outside the remit of Jobcentre Plus.
The UK’s missing workforce
The Institute for Employment Studies reports ‘a record number of people not working due to long-term ill health (which is rising at its fastest ever rate) and 600,000 more older people out of work than before the pandemic began’, many using their savings pre-retirement age, reticent to take a step anywhere near a Jobcentre Plus office. There are also 700,000 young people out of work according to Impetus; young people hidden from the labour market because they do not claim benefits.
Independent employment support organisations and their partners can reach out to the economically inactive, offering targeted, community-based employment and skills support outside of the benefits regime and Jobcentre Plus Work Coach offer. There are successful national outsourced provisions including the Work and Health Programme, and Restart, but again these depend on Jobcentre Plus referrals.
There should be an offer beyond these; one that begins with kindness, understanding and expertise of the reality of people’s lives, not an underlying current of benefits being claimed or sanctioned. The employment support sector proves time and again that once people build confidence and are given trusted support, job outcomes follow. Taking a different tack can have negative consequences as Sharyn Wall at Aspire Sussex so aptly says:
“There is so much depth and reason as to why people are out of work. For lots of individuals, pushing them into work will push them further away from it, or if they do start working it is not sustainable and the cycle begins again. More long-term support is needed around helping these individuals to become work ready.”
The employment support sector has exactly this expertise, plus the employer relationships to fill vacancies. What it needs is the funding to work with people who have left the workforce and with those that have yet to join it.
Solutions at risk
The end of European funding in 2023, and the gap before the option to significantly fund people and skills provision starts in England in 2024, means that many organisations that could step up and provide solutions are without the resources to do so. The stop-gap measure of allowing third sector provision to be built sooner into local investment plans has had disappointing take-up.
Neither the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) nor the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) seems able to explain this catastrophic funding void for England, or the disparity with a more joined up approach in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There is unfortunately no doubt that organisations will falter and fail due to it.
Equally disappointing is that the call for more investment to join up employability and skills provision is largely going unheard. Meaningful action is required from the DWP and Department for Education to train young people through the education system for the roles employers so desperately need.
There is so much expertise that could be harnessed that we are set to lose. And indeed, which Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches will lose too. The Chancellor’s ‘new offer’ from JCP Work Coaches to increase pay and prospects with skills and employability support relies on an extensive referral network. What we’re seeing is more jobseekers being channeled at less Work Coaches, with less support options at their fingertips.
Building Better Opportunities projects (National Lottery/ESF co-financed) have successfully helped people over fifty, those with care responsibilities, partners of claimants, parents, and young people not in education, training, or employment. Sector representatives from these projects are quite rightly more than a little concerned…
Jason Dunsford, Head of Employment & Skills at Gloucestershire Gateway Trust:
“The GEM Project has just taken its last referrals. While our local authority is doing its level best to bridge the gap, there should be national recognition of the impact of organisations, often at neighborhood level, who have the ability to engage people who are economically inactive and not on DWP’s radar. Actually, I would also include many of those who are engaged with Jobcentre Plus but for whom support outside of the formality and conditionality of those programmes is highly beneficial and impactful.”
Sharyn Wall, Building Better Opportunities Development Worker, Aspire Sussex Limited:
“Our project is due to end in March 2023, that’s six months, with engagements ending in December 2022. Partners and customers have all said our work provides a desperately needed service. The impact on our customers, the community and partner organisations is life changing and leads to success. We have not yet been able to secure funding and many other providers of this type of support are in the same situation. Imagine the impact if these services are stopped.”
The mini budget may have left the employability sector disappointed, but working in amongst all this uncertainty are an army of committed youth workers, employability advisors, key workers, peer mentors, health professionals and justice workers, all supporting disadvantaged individuals and communities. As a sector, we must evidence this work, show its impact on people and its wider social value. Providing commissioners with the hard facts of what works will enable them to unlock Treasury funds and put funding in place for it to continue.