The Simon Heng Column

Last week, at Community Care Live, I was involved in a discussion with a policy maker from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and a local manager from JobCentre Plus about Pathways To Work, and its suitability for disabled people.

Pathways To Work is the DWP initiative which is intended to help back to work a million of the 2.7 million people who claim incapacity benefit. Like many people who lived through the mass unemployment of the 1980s, and who witnessed that government’s attempts to massage the unemployment figures, I have been suspicious of any initiatives which claim to solve the unemployment problem by putting people on “schemes”.

From the Yops schemes of the eighties which reduced the unemployment by moving young people into meaningless work experience programmes, to the changes in the eligibility criteria for unemployment benefit, various groups have been stigmatised for being unemployed, and many people have claimed incapacity benefit – perhaps wrongly – because it was both more secure and a higher rate of benefit.

Initiatives to “help” people back to work have usually been seen as a means to intimidate people into stopping their benefit claims. It is no surprise that veterans of the benefit system often felt that their relationship with the Benefits Agency is something like the relationship between Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble.

What has surprised me is that the DWP seems to be making genuine attempts to change its relationship with unemployed people, from seeing them just as claimants to offering more services to help people work. The initiatives in its pilot schemes seem genuinely aimed at addressing some of people’s real difficulties and fears about returning to the job market, including a (short-term) way out of the poverty trap, the 40-a-week incentive.

I have two concerns about this. Do front-line staff share the management’s changed vision of their agencies’ roles, and can the agencies convince their service users they genuinely care about helping them back to paid employment, rather than just trying to get them off the books?


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