Working model: Scotland’s new employability powers

Written by Jenni Davidson on 18 April 2017 in Inside Politics

The Scottish Government intends to take a different approach to the UK model of employability support with its newly devolved powers

Jamie Hepburn MSP - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

“Our distinctly Scottish approach to helping people into work will be more flexible, tailored and easier to access.

“And our priority in the initial year is to provide continuity of support to people who are unemployed and face significant barriers to work.

“The new devolved services will have fairness, dignity and respect at their core, which will create a strong platform for us to build on for the full roll-out in 2018.

“In Scotland we will look to ease some of the stress of job hunting, by making our services voluntary, which is different to the mandatory arrangements in place for the rest of the UK.

“We believe voluntary participation will let us get the best out of people as without the threat of sanctions they will see the services as an opportunity to gain new skills through supportive training and coaching.”


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This was how the Scottish Government Minister for Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn, described the Scottish Government’s plans for employability support services as the new powers were devolved Scotland last week.

Up to 4,800 people with health conditions or disabilities will be supported by an interim programme in the first year through two schemes.

Work First Scotland – to be delivered by Momentum Scotland, Remploy and the Shaw Trust – will help up to 3,300 disabled people to get into work and support them once they’re in work, while Work Able Scotland – delivered by Progress Scotland (the Lennox Partnership and Working Links), Remploy and the Wise Group and managed by Skills Development Scotland – will do the same for up to 1,500 people with long-term health problems who fall into the work-related activity category of those receiving Employment and Support Allowance.

Following on from this temporary arrangement, from 2018 the two schemes will be replaced by one programme, Fair Start Scotland, which the Scottish Government expects to support a minimum of 38,000 people over the following three years.

Contracts for this, worth a total of £96m, are currently out for tender, with organisations invited to offer their services in one or more of nine geographical areas.

These areas will be coterminous with groups of local authorities to facilitate closer working with other local services, with SLAED, the Scottish Local Authorities Economic Development Group, “very influential” in determining the approach, according to Hepburn.

One area under the new contract, covering East Renfrewshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire, is reserved for a provider that itself employs at least 30 per cent of staff who have either a disability or another barrier to employment, part of an ambition by the Scottish Government to see more of that type of business able to secure public contracts.

Continuity of service was a key concern in the first instance, Hepburn tells Holyrood, hence the one-year transitional arrangements.

As well as ensuring there was no gap in provision as the powers were transferred, Hepburn says this changeover year allowed the Scottish Government to “further finesse our thinking around what we might want to do in the longer term”.

One of the key differences between the Scottish Government approach and the UK Government’s is that participation is voluntary rather than mandatory, with no sanctions for choosing not to take up the programmes.

That’s not the only difference. Hepburn adds: “But we also have a clear ambition… about the real need for a very much person-centred focus, recognising that individuals, every human being is complex and has various facets to their lives and there’s going to be a variety of barriers to employment or issues that might arise over the course of a person’s engagement with our programme.”

Hepburn recognises that there is “undoubtedly a challenge” involved in getting the devolved programme to mesh with the rest of the working-age benefits system, which remains reserved to the UK Government, as well as changing the culture of Job Centre Plus in Scotland.

“[We] need to make sure that the Job Centre Plus understands how our programme works by comparison to the programmes that went before and other programmes that they will continue to administer,” he said.

And while the Scottish Government has abolished sanctions for those that choose not to take up its employability support, or to not continue with a programme, people with health conditions and disabilities may still be sanctioned for other reasons.

Hepburn says: “I think it’s very important for us to emphasise that, because we can’t give people the impression that just because we’ve taken this decision that sanctions no longer exist in Scotland.

“That’s not the case. The particular sanctions regime that the UK Government, DWP, have put in place, remains. It’s their policy.”

At a roundtable launch event for the Scottish programme with providers and previous users of employability services last week, they shared with Hepburn what they feel is needed for success.

Linda Fisher, of Momentum, said: “It is about working with local organisations that know individuals and the local areas and what it is that’s required for those areas. So I think it is really just about drilling down [to get to] what individual customers need.

“I think removing any kind of mandatory big stick approach, definitely, it means people are going to come looking for the support and know no matter what it is that we ask them to do, or support them to do, there’s not going to be any comeback in terms of their benefits, which is a key worry for individuals.

“But I think also looking at the journey along the way, but also if we wanted to get them into work, [we need to think about] how we keep them there, because that is by far the biggest issue in terms of someone with a health condition.

“So it is really supporting that individual with the employer and I think it’s key to get employers on board so that they know exactly what’s required.

“And I think it’s an education for some employers as well, because there’s often a kind of fear around employing someone with a disability, so there really needs to be a big package around educating employers to make sure that they know that one, we can support them to support the individual, and that it’s not going to have an impact on their business, basically.”

Concerns were raised about Job Centre Plus. Laurie Russell of the Wise Group said: “I think there’s a broad feeling that the Job Centre is not there to find you a job; it’s there to get you off benefit.

And that’s a much bigger issue than the Scottish Government can tackle. But what that’s done, I think for a lot of people, they’ve ended up not trusting a number of the institutions that should be there to support them into work.

“And I think that’s something that we want to get over in Scotland, or to tackle in Scotland, but it won’t happen overnight, and you know that, but we at an individual level can build up a trust with the customers that we are working with.”

This was echoed by Alistair Kerr of the Shaw Trust: “I think perception is very crucial. I think the perception of Job Centre Plus over the last five to ten years can strike fear – and I don’t use that word lightly – can strike fear into people who have to access it at the point of need.

“There’s always a fear there. So I think it’s crucial for the people round this table to try and help and support the Scottish Government and Job Centre Plus with getting a strong message out that the programmes being set up to replace the current programmes are there to support the person on a personal journey, but hopefully to a long-term future in employment.”

There were also positive stories from those who had been through an employability scheme. One former customer of the Shaw Trust said: “The network of support I got through the Shaw Trust helped me get back into work. It’s only 16 hours a week, but it’s a start and it’s given me the confidence back, but it’s because now that I’m working I’ve still got the support from the Shaw Trust.

“You’re not just into work and you’re left on your own, because you don’t know what’s going to come, how you’re going to feel that day, things like that, but knowing that they’re only a phone call away and I’ve got that support, that does make a big, big difference if you’ve been unemployed for quite a while.”

Another service user, Lyndsey, had suffered depression and then spent six months in rehab for drug addiction.

She said: “At first I was like, ‘You’re not going to find me a job, nobody’s ever going to employ me, you just have to look at my history and they’re not going to give me a job’, and that’s how I felt for quite a long time. I had no confidence. I just didn’t think that anybody would ever give me a chance.”

Initially she felt that she was pushed too quickly into an employability programme, within a week or two of leaving rehab, at a time she just needed to reconnect with the community and she was sanctioned for failing to engage because she didn’t believe she would be able to get a job, but following reassurance from her support worker, she now has work she loves.

The consensus seems to be that the direction of travel is welcome and the right one, in terms of removing sanctions, a more individual approach and listening to those who use the services, but echoing the point made by Linda Fisher at the roundtable, Bill Scott, Director of Policy at Inclusion Scotland, suggests more work needs to be done with employers not just potential employees to change the situation.

This includes promotion of the Access to Work scheme, a UK Government benefit  that is currently being underclaimed in Scotland which covers up to 100 per cent of the cost of the adjustments or support disabled people need in the workplace, removing the disincentive, particularly for smaller businesses, who may fear prohibitive costs in employing someone with a disability.

He also calls for a work experience programme for disabled young people that measures outcomes as well as numbers, so people are not stuck in a cycle of work schemes and for disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) to be given the employment support work rather than private companies, because “employability schemes run by DPOs have much higher success rates because we actually do know what the barriers to employment are and have a genuinely person-centred approach”.

Meanwhile the PCS union has called for employability services to be brought in-house and run by the public sector.

However, ultimately, it comes down to changing thinking. Scott told Holyrood: “The biggest single barrier to increasing the employment of disabled people is employers’ attitudes, but there’s no real plan – yet – on how to achieve change there.

“We’d therefore like to see a proper plan of action on how the Scottish Government intend to engage not only with disabled people and their organisations, but also with employers’ organisations like chambers of commerce, Business Gateway, Institute of Directors, CBI, etc. We’re not the problem!”

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