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Funding and responsibility for the new Work and Health Programme (WHP) should be devolved to all local areas, to ensure that thousands more disadvantaged jobseekers and those with disabilities and health conditions are supported into work, councils have said.
The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling on the government to ensure it avoids repeating the mistakes of its Work Programme, which will be replaced by the WHP in 2017.
This call comes amid continued uncertainty about the future of EU funding for unemployed people in England up to 2020 and beyond.
Under the Whitehall-run £600 million a year Work Programme, only 1 in 5 of the most disadvantaged Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants secured a job after two years.
The Work Programme came in for criticism, with several reports questioning its effectiveness. In 2014, a report found that back to work support provided through the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus was causing severe anxiety for people with disabilities and pushing them further from the job market.
In December 2015, figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions showed that less than 1 in 10 people with mental health problems had been helped into sustained employment through the Work Programme.
Council leaders fear the WHP programme will also be unable to provide sufficient and effective support to the same jobseekers the Work Programme was unable to support and will fail to guard against the risk of increased unemployment for communities across the country.
The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, warns a nationally-run programme cannot provide the full support – including health services, skills training and jobs advice – to deal with the needs of claimants who have been out of work for years.
It is calling for the government to use the Autumn Statement to ensure that:
• The WHP is adequately resourced so jobseekers can be supported in the right way. Only receiving £130 million a year – 20% of the funding of its predecessor – means that either the right level of support will not be delivered or relatively few numbers of the most disadvantaged claimants will be supported
• Funding and responsibility for the Programme should be fully devolved to groups of councils across England and Wales so they can plan a coherent service to disadvantaged jobseekers and help grow their local economies. So far, only 10 local areas have been given limited ability to influence the Programme through devolution deals but for real devolution, freedom and flexibility is needed to make use of resources
• Local areas need a guarantee that they will receive every penny of planned EU funds for the unemployed to 2020, not just those projects approved in the next few months. The government also needs to commit to talks on how it will replace these funds after 2020.
Local government leaders insist that, with these changes, thousands more disadvantaged jobseekers and people with disabilities and health conditions would be supported into work.
Cllr Mark Hawthorne, chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said: “The government needs to recognise that employment support alone is not the answer to help those furthest from the jobs market.
‘’The LGA has put forward its own proposal to the government for a devolved, integrated employment support to replace the Work Programme, which we believe will deliver better outcomes for residents than the traditional Whitehall centrally controlled approach.
“Together with the government, we consulted councils on how the WHP should work. The clear message was that to be successful it will need to integrate local services, jobcentres must be required to work with councils and local partners so the right people are supported, and the right locally-based contractors are utilised.
“Councils are committed to ensure no-one is left behind, but they simply cannot afford to pick up the local costs of long-term unemployment. The time has come for local government to be given the opportunity to improve performance by commissioning employment support from 2017.
“The government will spend £10.5 billion this year on 20 national employment and skills schemes. It can also no longer afford to spend billions on separate national programmes when there are better more local solutions that can coordinate all local partners in a way which can most appropriately help those most in need of support.”
Cllr Nick Forbes, senior vice chair of the LGA, added: “The WHP can be successfully managed in all local areas across England.
“Helping more ESA and long-term JSA claimants move into employment is crucial to boosting local growth and reducing the welfare bill. Councils know best how to do this. We know our local economies, we know our local employers and we know our residents and we can bring local services together in a way central government will never be able to.
“Halving the employment rate gap for disabled people is a significant challenge. Radical steps are needed to achieve this goal and turn around the lives of thousands more of the most disadvantaged groups across England by smashing through the significant barriers that are stopping them finding and keeping a job.
“Central to this is need for further guarantees around EU funding. Whilst the Chancellor has guaranteed all European Social Fund projects approved up to the Autumn Statement, local areas need guarantees they will receive the total value of planned ESF funds to 2020 for the unemployed. Without this funding, support for the most disadvantaged areas risks being decimated.”