The Department for Work and Pensions has been criticised for its level of proven expertise in helping disabled people to find work – despite many years of running programmes with precisely that objective.
A report published today by the National Audit Office says that two years into a 10-year government drive to increase the number of disabled people in employment by a million, the department had only “limited experience” of what worked and no meaningful definition for the target.
The public-spending watchdog warned that jobcentre-based work coaches DWP was introducing as part of the rollout of Universal Credit tended to be generalists who could only be expected to offer limited support for people with multiple and complex barriers to work.
It also said there was a recognition within the department that previous target-driven approaches to getting people into work had created “perverse incentives” that encouraged work coaches to focus on those who were easiest to help, even if their employment was only temporary.
The NAO said while the number of disabled people in work had risen by 930,000 over the past five years, the figure had not been matched by a reduction in the number of disabled people who were out of work.
DWP faced substantial demand for support, with at least 600,000 disabled people classified by the department as fit for work, or fit for “work-related activity”, according to the watchdog.
It said the government’s headline goal of getting a million more disabled people into work between 2017 and 2027 could not be used to measure the success of DWP’s efforts.
“The department itself recognises that this measure cannot be linked directly to any specific government policy or programme,” it said.
“Broader factors, such as more people who are already in work reporting a disability, and rising employment rates, have a significant effect on the measure. It therefore lacks a target for which it is willing to be held to account.”
The report also flagged that while the department had set up a Work and Health Unit as a first step towards creating a cross-departmental approach, the DWP was unlikely to be able to feed the results of its ongoing trials into a clear and funded strategy in time for the next Spending Review.
NAO head Sir Amyas Morse applauded DWP’s “renewed commitment” to improving the culture of its jobcentres and its evidence base, but noted that the department had missed opportunities to assess the impact and cost-effectiveness of its programmes over the years.
“Given it has been supporting disabled people to work for a long time, it is not beyond reason to expect the department to know what works by now and it is disappointing that it does not,” he said.
“It has yet to make a significant dent in the number of disabled people who are out of work, some of whom say they would like to work given the right support.”
Meg Hillier, who chairs parliament's Public Accounts Committee, said it was unacceptable that people with disabilities and health problems were still being disadvantaged in the workplace.
“Work is the route out of poverty which is denied to too many disabled people,” she said.
“Despite a long line of government policies and programmes in this area and an impressive-sounding target, the NAO's report has found that DWP does not know what to do and its target for getting one million more disabled people into work is not worth the paper it is written on.
“DWP needs to get its act together, set out a plan for what it is going to do, and establish a proper target.”
A DWP spokesperson said the government has created the economic conditions for record levels of employment and was investing around £400m a year in support for people with disabilities who are unemployed.
“It is encouraging that in the last five years the number of disabled people in work has increased by 930,000, but we of course want to make sure every disabled person who can work, does work,” they said.
“That’s why we recently announced we are reviewing our goal to see one million more disabled people in work by 2027, and we are working with a wide range of organisations to ensure disabled people receive the best possible employment support.”