Welfare to Work 2011

Last week, I attended the Welfare to Work 2011 conference to get the latest updates on progress with welfare reform and, particularly, the Work Programme.

Representatives of organisations from across the private, public and voluntary sectors provided useful insight into recent and forthcoming developments.

Stefan Czerniawski from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) provided an update on plans for the Universal Credit which will replace many current benefits.

The Universal Credit will be delivered via household accounts rather than to individuals, and Stefan explained the considerable challenges in converting 19 million benefit claims into 8 million household claims. DWP expects to take around four years to make this transition.

Bob Leach, Managing Director of Maximus UK, a Work Programme prime and subcontractor, presented an overview of the first three months of delivery. Like many Work Programme contractors, Maximus has found that a higher than anticipated number of referrals to the Work Programme are JSA (Jobseeker’s Allowance) claimants. In contrast, there have been fewer ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants referred than predicted. Maximus is now working with the government to address this.

Bob also explained some of the challenges that the Work Programme has presented contractors with. Maximus has had to establish new links within communities that it has not previously delivered in. It is working with a number of charities to do this.

Bob also discussed the important role that self-employment plays in getting people into work. The flexibility of self-employment, coupled with the fact that there are low employment opportunities in some areas, makes it an option which is being increasingly considered.

Andy Farmer from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) spoke about the work that is ongoing to reduce fraud and error in the welfare system. Andy discussed how HMRC is supporting initiatives to help customers complete claims correctly and the activities that HMRC is engaged in to deter and punish fraudulent claims.

Laurie Russell, Chief Executive of the Wise Group and Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, highlighted the links between unemployment and other issues such as housing and health.

Both Laurie and Toby stressed the need for Work Programme activity to work hand in hand with other agencies to address clients’ issues. Without an integrated approach with other agencies to address the multiple barriers that a person may be facing, employability support will not be as effective.

Outside of the main conference session, I attended seminars which explored specific areas of employability activity.

The Wise Group presented its Routes out of Prison project which has been helping ex-offenders in Scotland. The simple yet effective scheme sees life coaches (many of whom are ex-offenders themselves) supporting newly released offenders. As part of the voluntary scheme, life coaches start working with inmates around six weeks prior to their release.

The life coach helps the client identify the support that they need and helps them engage with appropriate agencies prior to and post-release. The Routes out of Prison project recognises that clients aren’t ‘work ready’ immediately on release from prison, so alongside helping with issues such as health, addiction and homelessness, the life coaches also help clients prepare for work.

The Routes out of Prison project has already yielded some good results, with figures showing the significant savings to the state that can be made through this type of intervention.

I also attended a seminar run by G4S. Sean Williams, Managing Director of G4S Welfare to Work spoke about the organisation’s role as one of the largest Work Programme contractors.

G4S delivers entirely through subcontractors. Sean provided a high-level view on how G4S believes the Work Programme will evolve over the next five years. The seminar included a discussion on “payment by results” and how this can have a negative impact on third sector organisations that are delivering via subcontracts.

Several members of the audience from community and voluntary sector organisations that are involved in reaching the hardest to help client groups fear that they may not be able to survive without additional financial support from the prime-contractors.

Sean acknowledged this and confirmed that G4S was continually looking at ways of supporting its successful subcontractors, particularly once the attachment fee (the upfront payment received for each client) is reduced and eventually withdrawn.

The final session that I attended looked at linking skills to employment. Philip Evans, Director of Operations at the Careers Development Group, a Work Programme prime and subcontractor, discussed the importance of sustainable employment. This is something which CASCAiD has a huge interest in promoting; you can read more about it on our website.

There was also input from UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills). The commission has recently undertaken research on youth unemployment and presented a view on young people and employment from employers’ perspective.

Contrary to other research, the employer survey carried out by UKCES has found that on the whole, employers believe that young people are well prepared for employment.

Overall, I found the event very useful and interesting. It highlighted the complexity of the welfare to work industry. What I found most interesting were the numerous examples of clients who have been helped by the various private, public and voluntary sector organisations which make up this industry.

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