The government looks set to maintain a separate employment support scheme for disabled people, amid concerns they would be ill-served by the coalition’s planned single programme for all benefit claimants.
Following the election, the coalition said it would take forward Conservative proposals to merge all existing back-to-work schemes into a single Work Programme, sparking warnings that disabled people would not receive the specialist support they needed.
However, ministers now look set to implement Work Choice, a new back-to-work programme for disabled people devised by Labour, and keep it separate from the Work Programme.
Huw Davies, chief executive of the British Association for Supported Employment, who has attended several recent meetings on the issue with the DWP, said: “I’m expecting them to continue the programme. Our understanding is that [officials in] the Department of Work and Pensions [are] lobbying ministers quite hard to continue Work Choice.”
Sally Burton, chief executive of Shaw Trust, one of the department’s preferred bidders to provide Work Choice, echoed Davies’ comments, saying: “The sense that I have had is that the civil service has presented a positive view of [Work Choice].
Tim Cooper, director of the Office for Disability Issues within the DWP, told Community Care it was looking seriously at keeping a separate support scheme for disabled people outside of the Work Programme. An announcement is due shortly.
Burton warned that Shaw Trust needed a decision on Work Choice’s future by the end of June if was to be able to start delivering services on 25 October, when it is supposed to begin.
The trust has already invested £500,000 in start-up costs for Work Choice and trustees have asked that preparations be scaled back at the end of the month if its future remains uncertain. Burton said this could delay recruitment and training of staff to support disabled people, pushing back the start of the programme.
Work Choice involves the merger of three existing schemes, including Workstep, which is geared towards helping disabled people overcome barriers to gaining and keeping work. Work Choice is designed to provide more support for disabled people furthest from the labour market by tackling Workstep’s inflexibilities, such as the expectation that clients will enter work within eight weeks of starting the programme.
However, Davies raised concerns that changes could be made to the original Work Choice plans that would make it less cost-effective for providers to work with people furthest from the labour market. This could include making contracts shorter than the intended five years, he added.
He added: “My concern is that the rate will be too low to make providers want to work with people with complex needs.”