Get well-trained soon

10th March 2006 at 00:00
How can a million people on sickness benefit get into work? Martin Whittaker on a massive training challenge

The Government wants to get a million people off incapacity benefit and back in to work over the next decade - but who will provide the training needed?

Disability charities are concerned that this fundamental question remains unanswered, while private training providers warn of a huge skills shortage among incapacity benefit claimants.

Both groups have called for more joined-up thinking. Barbara Walters, chief executive of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, said: "There's no mention of how this is going to be provided and funded.

"We do think the Department for Work and Pensions understands that people will need this education and support. But they don't seem to be able to engage with the Department for Education and Skills on how this is going to happen, because this group of people isn't a priority for DfES funding."

The Green Paper A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work was launched in January, targeting those on long-term benefits.

Among its proposals, it has its sights set on reducing the number of people on incapacity benefit, as well as increasing the number of older workers and helping lone parents into work.

There are over 2.7 million people on incapacity benefits, and over a third of these have been claiming for eight years or more. The Government says most want to work again, but are thwarted by a benefits system that reinforces their reliance on welfare rather than helping them back into work.

It proposes replacing incapacity benefit and income support with new "employment and support allowances". For those with the worst health and disabilities it would be paid unconditionally. But for most, the allowance they receive would depend on them showing commitment to getting a job.

The Association of Learning Providers has welcomed the proposals, but calls for a much more coherent joined-up government plan, co-ordinating programmes from Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council.

It said the gap between the employability of those on incapacity benefit and the expectations and demands of employers is greater than ever. ALP says there is a widespread problem with basic skills among this group and that those returning to work will need extra support from personal advisers available for some time after they start work. "They're not going to make a real impact on the long-term, hardest to reach unemployed if training is not part of the package," said ALPspokesman Aidan Relf.

But even when training is available, it has to be carefully tailored.

Barbara Walters of Skill says people with disabilities need time to get used to education and training. "They're not going to go straight into a vocational programme, succeed and then work," she said. "The Government needs to remember that some of those people had a very poor secondary education if they're in their 40s and 50s, because the support for their disability when they were at school simply wasn't there."

The national charity Shaw Trust, a leading authority in disability and employment, has welcomed the shake-up, in which voluntary sector organisations are expected to play a huge role (see case study).

But Shaw Trust chief executive Ian Charlesworth said: "We have programmes that work, but not the resources to make a difference in giving people the right support to help them back to work.

"The solution has to be a much more co-ordinated effort from Government and a range of departments, including education, as well as employers and providers of training from the private and voluntary sector."

The social enterprise sector could also play a greater role in getting people back to work. Social enterprises are businesses with a social purpose - well known ones include Cafedirect, the Big Issue.

Social Firms UK is a charity that has been set up specifically to create jobs for disabled people by helping to develop and support social enterprises.

Sally Reynolds, chief executive, says the Government faces an uphill task. "They have a really big challenge in front of them. "Incapacity benefit claimants are one of the furthest removed from the labour market. You cannot get someone off IB and into a job the next day. They need intensive and appropriate support. Self-esteem and confidence are usually at rock bottom - that needs time."

She is looking at setting up viable businesses that specialise in employing disabled people, which would incorporate work-based training spread over two years to give those going back to work time to adapt.

But is the learning and skill sector flexible enough to offer such training? "I'm not sure that they are, to be honest," she says.

The "output-driven agenda" of learning and skills councils is all about "ticking boxes" and "bums on seats". In order to win training contracts, organisations have to deliver guaranteed numbers."But you can't work like that with people on long-term benefits," she says.

The Learning and Skills Council says it already has hundreds of thousands of people on benefits participating in its education and training programmes, but acknowledges that there are huge numbers out of work with low skills.

It says it is already working with Jobcentre Plus, piloting schemes to support incapacity benefit recipients through training and into employment.

For example, one project in Cambridgeshire is targeting former construction workers on benefits and retraining them as tutors. "We estimate that we already have something like 400,000 individuals who are on benefits who participate in our education and training programmes," said Pam Vaughan, the LSC's director of skills for employment.

"We are already making quite a significant contribution to the education and training of those individuals, particularly because we have a focus on low skills."

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