Back to Work Plan: welcome news “risks being drowned out by divisive rhetoric” – IES comment

IES News

16 Nov 2023

Commenting on today’s announcements, Tony Wilson, IES Director, said:

"Today’s announcement of significant investment in employment support is welcome news, but it risks being drowned out by divisive rhetoric around ‘coasters’ who want to ‘take taxpayers for a ride’. This sort of language just pushes people away – alienating those who could benefit from support, alienating employers, and alienating partners like GPs and voluntary services.

"With more people out of work than before the pandemic, and most of these not required to attend jobcentres in the first place, we need to make employment support more open, accessible and supportive – based on ‘you can’ rather than ‘you must’.  Ironically the substance of today’s announcements arguably get us closer to that point, but the language being used risks pushes us further away.

"On the detail, the extension of the Restart Scheme for a further two years, more investment in Individual Placement and Support and in the new Universal Support programme, and a major expansion of talking therapies are all welcome news. The government have made clear that these will be based on voluntary engagement and partnership working. The announcements also guarantee that investment in employment support will bridge into the next Parliament and at significant scale.

"There are challenges too however, particularly in meeting the workforce needs for talking therapies and IPS, and in scaling up Universal Support quickly enough – where we are six months on from its announcement at the Spring Budget but understandably still some way away from being able to roll it out. It also appears that the government will not be further extending or directly replacing the Work and Health Programme which has supported around 300 thousand people since 2017. So the net increase in numbers accessing support from new measures will be somewhat lower than the headline figures given today.

"The confirmation that there will be up to fifteen ‘WorkWell’ partnerships is also welcome, which in our view provide a real opportunity to draw together health, employment and wider services within places and to bring employment support closer to the people it needs to reach.

"The two main measures announced around sanctions however are less positive. The first appears mainly to be an administrative exercise to close claims where people have been on continual sanction for more than six months and so who may no longer be entitled to benefit. This may lead to modest savings – as people will lose access to legal aid and free prescriptions – but is unlikely to have any wider benefits.  The second measure though looks to be an attempt to force more of the long-term unemployed off benefit if they don’t find jobs through Restart – through a combination of mandatory work placements (so-called ‘workfare’) or more stringent activity requirements. These measures are very similar to those trialled by the Coalition government after the Work Programme – which didn’t work then and won’t work now either."

IES Director Tony Wilson talks to BBC Breakfast's Charlie Stayt about the new Back to Work Plan