What does "work-related activity" really mean?

Posted: 
1 November 2013

The second in our new fortnightly series of think pieces, Andy White, Employment and Working Age Manager at RNIB, looks at whether the Work Programme is working.

Earlier this year, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report into the effectiveness of the government's flagship, return to work programme entitled, "Can the Work Programme work for all user groups?" Reading this, you soon realise the question is rhetorical. The report found growing evidence that the differential pricing structure, (offering greater financial rewards to providers that succeed in achieving sustained job outcomes for harder to help jobseekers), is not having its intended impact: That is, the Work Programme appears not to be reaching the most disadvantaged jobseekers, which includes blind and partially sighted people.

"Of the 690 blind and partially sighted people referred to the Work Programme, only 20 have found work." Figures provided to RNIB by The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) indicate that in its first two years 690 blind and partially sighted people were referred to the Work Programme. Of those, only 20 have found work.

This is poor yet unsurprising. But before the government busies itself with analysis of how it can improve performance targets or create better differential pricing structures, it should be asking some big questions around what happened to those 670 people that didn't achieve a job outcome. What kind of help do blind and partially sighted people receive from the prime providers, and what should specialist employment support look like?

In April of this year, all disabled people claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will have undergone a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). In its first five years, nearly 9,000 blind and partially sighted claimants completed their initial WCA. 47 per cent were assessed as Fit for Work, thereby losing entitlement to ESA. Many of course appealed, and of those for whom we know the outcome, 36 per cent have had their appeal upheld. Most however are still awaiting an outcome.

Now, as a result of the WCA, the majority of working age blind and partially sighted people not in employment are required to undertake some form of "work-related activity" to try to improve their employability. This includes the Work Programme, and for most this is proving to be irrelevant and unhelpful.

RNIB and Action for Blind People are sub-contracted to almost all of the prime providers to provide employment support services, yet comparatively few blind and partially sighted people are referred to us. Thus the question, "What does work-related activity really mean?" Not much, if DWP's statistics are anything to go by, at least not for blind and partially sighted people. If the Work Programme's differential pricing structure was intended to reduce the risk of "creaming" and "parking" in which welfare-to-work providers prioritise relatively work-ready jobseekers ahead of those facing greater disadvantages, then the message seems unapologetically clear: the Work Programme isn't working.

To be fair, an alternative Government programme called Work Choice provides a specialist employment service for disabled people and employers, and this is increasingly recognised as a better service for disabled job seekers. Since April 2011, of the 1,060 people that started on Work Choice whose primary disability was described as "visual impairment", 330 have achieved a job outcome. But rather than being the go-to service for every blind and partially sighted job seeker, Work Choice provision remains patchy and confusing. Not every disabled person is entitled to it, and Disability Employment Advisers are not always clear about its purpose and availability. Funding for Work Choice appears not to be universal.

"In our ENABLER pilot, 12 of the 14 blind and partially sighted participants achieved postive changes in their personal circumstances."

In contrast to all this, RNIB's recent ENABLER research trialled some innovative return to work services for a small pilot group of hard to help people. 12 of the 14 blind or partially sighted participants achieved positive changes in their personal circumstances, and some of these changes were dramatic: Three participants are now in paid employment, three secured full-time education courses, and seven benefited from voluntary work as the first important step on their journey into paid employment. Most developed skills in a range of areas: for example, travelling independently through mobility training; computer skills through IT training; and accessing information through literacy and numeracy courses. Confidence levels and motivation increased for almost all participants over the eight months of the trial.

This research shows that with the right kind of assessment and support, even those blind and partially sighted jobseekers that are some way from the labour market can find work, or move significantly closer towards employment. It's time for work related activity to be made meaningful, and for the Work Programme to start working for all.

A whole range of information, advice, resources and services for employers and employment professionals is available at our employing a blind or partially sighted person and employment professionals sections.