Emily Farley: To close the disability employment gap, we need the voluntary sector’s ‘little platoons’

Emily Farley is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). The CSJ has recently published the first in a two-part series called “Commissioning Excellence in disability: An assessment of the Department for Work & Pensions’ nationally contracted disability employment provision”.

Last week’s record-breaking employment statistics hide a reality where certain groups in the jobs market are getting left behind.

Take a minute to dig into these figures and you will find that the disability employment gap is stubbornly refusing to shift and hasn’t done so in over a decade. There are approximately 900,000 disabled people who are currently not in work but who want to work.

If you are disabled you are thirty per cent less likely to be in work than your non-disabled counterparts, a figure that has remained largely unchanged despite billions spent on focused employment programmes. Those with learning disabilities fare even worse: just 1-in-20 people with a learning disability have a job, a figure that has decreased while employment levels for everyone else has increased.

Disabled people are not a single group, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Not only are there hundreds of thousands of disabled people who want to work, but when researchers looked at disabled people in the workplace they found workers who are highly committed to their jobs, take fewer sick days, and are more productive than non-disabled people.

Over the past six years successive governments have spent approximately £3 billion on employment support programmes for the unemployed, and there have been government-funded, nationally-contracted disability employment programmes in place for well over half a century. Yet the disability employment gap remains.

The Centre for Social Justice’s new report, Commissioning Excellence in Disability, looks at this in detail and sets out some of the reasons why.

When we looked closely at the commissioning of welfare-to-work programmes we found a pattern of small, specialist voluntary sector organisations squeezed out of the race for contracts by a one-size-fits-all mentality. These charities have the local expertise and relationships to make a big difference, but what they can’t do is easily access government-commissioned contracts.

From the Jericho Foundation in Birmingham through to Project SEARCH in Eastbourne, the answers the Government are often seeking have already been established at a grass-roots level by charities up and down the country. As things currently stand however, the market for disability employment support is becoming increasingly dominated by a cartel of big companies, at the exclusion of the little guy. Under the Work and Health Programme, six players dominate one hundred per cent of the prime provider market.

Any market dominated by only a few players will lack innovation, or value for money, and will carry significant risk. An oligopoly of large, multinational providers is even more concerning when we still need big ideas and to help some of our most disadvantaged workers back into the jobs market.

Under one previous employment programme, the Royal National College for the Blind outperformed all other providers. Despite their excellent outcomes and specialist expertise, they have been prevented from bidding for future contracts because of misguided and unnecessary funding requirements.

The CSJ believes in the genius of small charities that too often get overlooked by Whitehall. These organisations must be brought back to the fore of government interventions that seek to help the long-term unemployed find meaningful and sustained employment.

Commissioning Excellence in Disability calls for Whitehall to review and scrap the one-size-fits all contracting of big companies, and wake up to the innovation found in small, local and specialist charities in delivering government welfare-to-work reforms.

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