The spending watchdog today urged the government to learn from the failings of its predecessor’s efforts to get disabled people and those with long-term health conditions into work.
In a report, the National Audit Office said the Pathways to Work scheme, introduced by Labour, had had little or no effect in getting people off sickness benefits into work and provided “poor value for money”.
With the new government looking to introduce a single employment support programme for all benefit claimants, the NAO called for a review to be undertaken to learn the lessons from Pathways to ensure reforms were effective for disabled claimants.
The report, which said Pathways had provided “poor value for money”, came one day after work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith outlined the new government’s welfare reform proposals, which also include plans to reassess all existing incapacity benefit claimants on their fitness to work.
Pathways began as a pilot in 2003, was rolled out from 2007-8 and is currently mandatory for new sickness benefit claimants who are assessed as having the potential to work with support.
It involves claimants undergoing six obligatory work-focused interviews with a personal adviser who helps to devise a plan to help them find work. They also receive a medical assessment of their long-term eligibility for incapacity benefits within three months of a claim, rather than six, and can also receive help managing their condition and a £40 a week return-to-work credit.
Programmes are delivered by external contractors in 60% of areas and Jobcentre Plus staff in the rest.
The report found that the number of incapacity benefits claimants fell from 2.76 million to 2.63 million from 2006-9.
But the report found that the contribution of Pathways was likely to have been modest and had been mainly down to people receiving an early medical assessment and being found to be ineligible for incapacity benefits.
It said that as of March 2009, by which time the programme had cost £538m, 15% of Pathways claimants had started a job. Evaluation from the later phases of the Pathways roll-out found that claimants were just as likely to move into employment with as without Pathways support.
The NAO also said external contractors had underperformed against their contracts in getting people into work, while the Department for Work and Pensions had had to make concessions on contracts to ensure services continued in some areas.
With the new government keen to make greater use of contracted out employment support provision, the NAO called for a more rigorous approach to contract management.