Monday, 28 January 2013

Employment and welfare reform – why bother?

DrugScope’s policy team is busy working on a wide range of issues that are impacting on the drug and alcohol sector, including public health, Police and Crime Commissioners and payment by results. As may have become apparent over the last few months however, we have been paying increasing attention to welfare reform, employment initiatives and DWP active labour market interventions such as the Work Programme. Given the potential for substantial change in the sector, it would be reasonable to ask why we’ve accorded this such priority.

The Drug Strategy explicitly recognises the importance of accessing training and employment in supporting recovery. There are, of course, broader positive reasons for people to seek and (hopefully) find and sustain paid work. As a matter of principle, we broadly agree with the conclusions contained in the frequently cited report by Waddell and Burton – Is Work Good for Your Health and Wellbeing?  Work is often a route out of poverty and towards greater financial and personal independence – although with a strong caveat that the quality of the work in question is crucial. There is persuasive and plausible evidence that suggests that insecure, low-paid, low-status work involving irregular hours and poor terms and conditions is not particularly good for one’s health and wellbeing.

Conversely, there are other reasons why some might feel the need to seek employment – aspects of welfare reform will increase conditionality (the things that people need to do to remain eligible for benefits), including for some people on Employment Support Allowance. We need to ensure that individuals are able to safely navigate the transition to Universal Credit, as well as managing the other changes due over the course of the year – the phasing in of Personal Independence Payment to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the overall benefit cap (likely to be around £26,000p.a.), the localisation of Council Tax Benefit and a new claimant commitment that will demand more of jobseekers than has previously been the case. The abolition of the discretionary social fund (community care grants and loans) from April 2013 will also potentially impact on people with drug and alcohol problems. Alongside these changes, there are new offers aimed at supporting recovery, such as tailored conditionality for people entering “recovery orientated treatment” – this is a positive step, and we will be working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to try to ensure that the detail contained in the guidance matches the policy intent, which is to allow people to remain focussed and supported during a crucial phase of treatment.

With sanctions (suspension of benefits) already extended to up to 3 years via the interim regulations that came into effect towards the end of 2012, claimants will need a good understanding of how the new systems will work and how to access the right sort of support should they encounter difficulties. There is growing international evidence that the effectiveness of sanctions and conditionality is limited for chaotic and vulnerable claimants, and the sector needs to ensure that its clients are not treated unfairly or prejudicially. The National Treatment Agency (NTA) has, along with Jobcentre Plus (JCP) and Work Programme providers, recently released a new joint working protocol that may mean that people get a service that is a better fit to their needs, but we know that disclosure and identification remains a problem when frontline JCP or Work Programme staff often lack the skills or expertise to enable such a discussion, whilst the view of people with histories of drug use, often informed by experience, is that by disclosing they will receive not a better service, but a worse one.

Finally, with regard to the impact of the Work Programme on the sector and the people it serves. Speaking to agencies, whether or not they’re on Work Programme supply chains, the impression we’ve formed is not so much one of a business opportunity that didn’t materialise so much as an acute sense of frustration that proven, effective programmes and partnerships have had support removed or reduced, whilst the needs of those furthest from the job market do not appear to be being met though mainstream, generalist initiatives. In 2013, DWP will be piloting new approaches in the Work Programme to people with histories of drug and alcohol use. This is a welcome development and is one we will be watching keenly.

DrugScope has submitted evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee and will be giving evidence in person on the 30th January 2013. You can read our submission here, and can watch the session online here. You can also find more information about our LDAN Employment Project, including resources for treatment providers and Work Programme providers, here.

The Recovery Partnership is hosting the Recovery Festival on 12 and 13 March to encourage and inspire employers and businesses to work with people in recovery. More information about the Recovery Festival is available here.

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