Research calls for local areas – not DWP – to run employment support

By Tom Pollard, Mental health policy expert

The COVID pandemic has led to hundreds of thousands of people falling out of work, and millions more facing uncertainty about their jobs in the coming months. Unprecedented numbers of people have had to turn to benefits for support, and the focus is now on how to support newly unemployed people back into work.


In the shadows of this story, over two million people are in long-term unemployment due to disabilities, health conditions, and the social disadvantages that often accompany this. They now find themselves at the back of a very long queue for jobs, reliant on a system of employment support that was proving ineffective even before the pandemic. 

I saw the problems with this system first-hand when I spent 18 months on secondment at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) advising on mental health. After writing for Demos last year about how deep these problems run, I wanted to focus on how things could be done differently.  


Around this time, I came across the work of New Local (formerly New Local Government Network) on the ‘Community Paradigm’, which offered a framework for a fundamentally different approach to public service delivery. With the support of Lloyds Bank Foundation, we started work on reimagining how people facing complex disadvantage could be supported to move towards employment. 



Our new research, published today, argues that a locally-led response, with small charities at its heart, could overcome the problems hard-wired into the current system. The report is based on interviews with people involved in delivering employment support from local authorities, specialist charities and the NHS. It explores what is currently working well at a local level, what barriers are standing in the way of services delivering better support, and how an overhaul of the current system could remove these barriers. 



Small, specialist charities, rooted in the local areas and communities they serve, understand and respond to people’s interconnected needs and aspirations, in a way that generic provision is not able to. Switchback, a London-based charity, mentors young prison leavers before and after their release, to help them adjust back into society, including through employment. South Yorkshire Housing Association worked with people with lived experience of issues such as mental health problems to design and deliver new models of support. Halifax Opportunities Trust provides people with a keyworker to support them through the range of complex challenges they face that may be impacting on their ability to work. 



The ethos and commitment of these organisations means that they are willing to go the extra mile, and work collaboratively with other services, to ensure people get the help they need. At the core of their work are the type of trusting, personal relationships that DWP struggles to foster, in large part because of its role policing the benefits system. 



But even the best local provision is constrained by a difficult funding and commissioning environment, and the challenges of operating in a wider system dominated by DWP. Local services can try to take a different approach, but in order to access funding they often have to fit within parameters set by Whitehall. Meanwhile, the people these services support are often wary and jaded from their experience of a benefits system that treats them with suspicion and demands compliance.   


This isn’t working: Reimaging employment support for people facing complex disadvantage’ argues for the current system to be turned on its head. Over £700m of spending on support for this group, currently overseen by DWP, should be devolved to local areas to design and deliver their own approaches. Local authorities should act as conveners to bring communities and services together to develop strategies for addressing local needs, and particularly the needs of those facing complex disadvantage. DWP should focus solely on providing financial security to this group, so that people have the space, time and confidence to engage with local support. 


With more resources and freedom, local ecosystems of support would be better able to meet the range of needs people face, particularly the type of complex and interlinked challenges often experienced by people who are unemployed due to disabilities and health conditions. Separating this support from the benefits system would allow people to engage, without fear or pressure, with services rooted in the places they live. This will not only help more people to move into employment, but will also ensure that they are supported in a way that fits with their own needs, strengths and aspirations. 

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