Huw Davies blog: Now is the Time!

Now is the Time. As we move towards publication of a national disability strategy, it is timely to reflect on how things stand within the Supported Employment sector. It is telling that 40 years after the introduction of Supported Employment to the UK, we have still not seen any national funding of a sector that is predominantly funded through local authorities and charitable sources.

We know the demand for services is there. Disabled people have consistently stated their employment ambitions and we are seeing a steadily increasing commitment from large employers. The model makes sense – the right person in the right job with the right support.

The cost-benefit analysis that we’ve seen from Kent and Gloucestershire shows that it makes financial sense. Even if services are slightly more costly than the mainstream employment support commissioned by DWP, the outcomes are better and sustained for longer. 

The Government’s flagship Work and Health Programme has seen almost 140,000 referrals from disabled people. We don’t know what their disabilities are as this data isn’t published. Under 100,000 of them actually started on the programme. Pre-Covid, around a third of these people started earning a wage but less than half of these were still in work 6 months later. 

I wouldn’t argue against the need for this support programme but it’s clearly not helping people with learning disabilities or autism whose employment rates stand at about 26% and 21% respectively according to the Labour Force Survey. Remarkably, the employment rate of for the broad and unclear term “severe or specific learning difficulties” has risen from 17.6% to 26.5% in a year. The widely quoted, and troublesome, ASCOF indicator for the employment rates of people with a learning disability known to adult social care currently stands at 5.6% - it’s lowest ever rate. While these figures are undoubtedly suspect, it is clear that the disability employment gap is far higher for some groups than the headline 30% figure often cited.

Local Supported Employment services continue to be at risk. They are a non-statutory service with little in the way of spare funds to pay for things like marketing, workforce development and quality assurance. Without national funding, it seems unlikely that employment rates will improve.

Contrast this with how the model of Supported Employment for people with long-term mental health needs has developed. Individual Placement & Support (IPS) services are being rolled out across England thanks to NHS funding. They are subject to model-fidelity quality assessments and job coaches earn at least 50% more than their counterparts in social care. The initiative is supported by a national infrastructure, IPS Grow, and is driven by a clear cost-benefit argument that is backed by the Treasury.

People with learning disabilities have, again, been forgotten. We estimate that fewer than 2,500 learning disabled people are working more than 16 hours per week. Nobody really knows as the data is so fragmented. What we do know is that people struggle to access good quality employment support services. Why should one section of society slip from the attention of the Government department - the Department for Work and Pensions - that’s meant to support the economic wellbeing of this country’s population?

I was involved in a 2004 cross-Government report whose title said it all: Improving the Employment Rates of People with a Learning Disability. It took 2 years for the report to be published but it contained 42 recommendations covering a variety of themes from pooled funding to employer awareness, from improved education pathways to better involvement of specialist providers within DWP-procured programmes. Many of these recommendations are still pertinent 17 years later.

Which brings us back to a “once in a generation” national strategy. It’s not a had a good start since being announced last April. I struggle to see how they will draw any useful conclusions from the recent survey of people with lived experience of disability. The Cabinet Office Disability Unit seems to be a prolific tweeter of anything but the national strategy and information about the cross-Government thematic groups is sparse.

We have, though, seen a range of policy discussions recently. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Employment organised a detailed discussion about the impact of Covid-19 on young disabled people. They didn’t really feature within the final report though. I, along with others, have presented recently to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into the disability employment gap. And this week saw the publication of the Centre for Social Justice’s Disability Commission report, Now is the Time; an in-depth examination of what needs to change across education, employment, housing, transport and services to improve disabled people’s lives. 

I very much welcome the report’s conclusions and recommendations. It contained supply-side sections about Supported Employment, Supported Internships, and apprenticeships and made specific recommendations for rolling out Supported Employment services and improving the quality and supply of Supported Internships. I hope that it will be closely read at the Disability Unit.

I was struck by Matthew Oakley’s report, Time to Think Again, which shows the close correlation of disability and poverty. Appropriate, fit-for-purpose employment support is one of the key ways in which we can ensure that disabled people aren’t living their lives in poverty.

A number of years ago, DWP put their hands up and said they weren’t sure what worked. They called for evidence of good practice. It’s been difficult for them – the continual staff changes mean that they are constantly forgetting what they’ve learned. They largely don’t remember Valuing People, local area agreements, joint investment planning. We see tentative signs of investment through the Supported Employment trailblazer and there’s no doubt that there’s some highly committed DWP officials. But now is the time for change.

We have to invest in good quality education pathways and the Department for Education’s SEND review must focus on improving quality, gathering better data and professionalising job coach support. If a young learning-disabled person doesn’t get a job by the age of 25-years then they are unlikely to work – a shocking waste of human potential. Employment support should be a core function of DWP, not a peripheral sideshow to be funded somehow through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. 

The national disability strategy has to address the obvious needs and mirror the NHS investment in IPS services. There’s a growing consensus that locally commissioned support is the most effective model - it enables local coordination and is trusted by jobseekers. Supported Employment offers the framework for this specialist support but must be backed up by a national programme to professionalise the workforce and establish a quality assurance kitemark that employers can trust. Now is the time indeed!