Matthew Oakley is the head of WPI Economics.
As with all governments in the last 15 years, Theresa May’s new government is committed to helping more disabled people who want work, to find it.
A 2015 manifesto pledge committed to the ambition of halving the disability employment gap and, while this year’s Party Conference season was silent on this bold ambition, it did reconfirm the desire to boost disability employment.
A Green Paper outlining the Government’s proposed approach is due imminently. With the gap between disabled and non-disabled employment rates having worsened since 2010, it’s clear that urgent action is needed.
That action needs to focus on a range of areas. Recent reports have highlighted the need to reform Statutory Sick Pay and the wider system of benefits for disabled people. Businesses will also need to do more to help disabled people to stay in and enter work, and an upcoming SMF report will recommend a bold new system to transform the responsibilities of businesses.
Action on each of these will be vital to achieving better employment, health and living standards outcomes for disabled people and the Government’s Green Paper is, rightly, set to outline proposals that touch on many of these areas.
But an area with a surprising lack of ambition is employment support. In fact, following reform in 2016, in each year of this Parliament, 45,000 fewer out-of-work disabled people will be able to access specialist contracted employment support services.
The reductions in numbers with access to the programmes have resulted from a significant fall in the budget for contracted support. In 2013/14, spending on the Work Programme and Work Choice came to around £750 million, these programmes will be replaced by the Work and Health Programme in 2017 and total spending is forecast to rise to just £130 million a year by the end of the Parliament.
Add to this the uncertainty over wider employment support funding when the European Social Fund drys up post-Brexit, and it is obvious that the impacts on employment and lives could be significant. Nearly six in ten of those accessing the Work Choice programme find and stay in a job for at least 13 weeks.
Other programmes like Working Well in Manchester are also delivering improved health and employment outcomes for disabled people. Reducing access to these programmes and increasing reliance on the light-touch generic support available through Jobcentre Plus could well have a negative impact on disability employment rates.
Of course, employment support is not the only route through which improved employment outcomes for disabled people could be achieved and, for many disabled people, work is not a feasible or desirable option.
However, there are around 1.3 million out-of-work disabled people in the UK who want to work and, for these people, access to specialist employment support providers could be the difference between achieving their employment goals and continuing to see work as a distant prospect.
What’s the alternative? Doubling the size of the Work and Health Programme would allow 160,000 more disabled people to access specialist employment support. Modelling released by WPI Economics shows that, over a five year programme, this could lead to an additional 30,000 disabled people in work and net benefits to the Exchequer of £280 million.
With such significant savings here, there is a clear investment argument. But ultimately, this should not happen because it saves money, but because helping disabled people who want to work to achieve that goal is the right thing to do.
If the Government wants to make an economy that works for disabled people, it needs to be bold. The Green Paper is set to outline the start of a new approach, with ambitious long-term goals for a system that works better for disabled people.
But action is also needed now to show that it’s ambitions are more than warm words. Doubling the numbers of disabled people able to access specialist employment support in this Parliament would be a clear way to demonstrate commitment to helping those disabled people who want work to achieve their employment ambitions.