There is a flurry of policy activity in the field of learning disabilities and employment at the moment. Last Wednesday’s Summit on the topic, hosted by the British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD) in Birmingham, followed close on the heels of a run of associated consultation events. Led by a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servant, with the Department of Health (DH) also in the room, the focus of the meeting was a new national learning disability employment strategy. This is to be in final draft form by November, with a set of four learning and sharing events to follow, and sign-off by Mark Harper, Minister for Disabled People, expected in January 2015. Other indications that the topic of learning disabilities is ‘hot’ in Whitehall and Westminster, as DWP’s Simon Francis asserted on the day, include: the recent appointment of a Special Educational Needs Tsar (Lee Scott MP); the revamp of the GOV.UK website for potential employers of people with learning disabilities; and, a commitment to put much more of the information in this domain into easy read format.
It is too early to say much about the new employment strategy for people with learning disabilities in detail. The talk is of opening up a new funding stream, but quite what shape this will take (and whether, for example, it will entail new pilots)—this isn’t being discussed openly yet.
Only around 7% of people with learning disabilities are employed (in contrast to about 80% of the non-disabled population). Targeted programmes can make an impact. Jobs First, one such that ran between 2010-2011 and which was evaluated by this Unit, took that figure up to about 25% in its ‘intervention’ group. (It essentially involved prioritising paid work over leisure and voluntary work in reviews and assessments of those with moderate to severe learning disabilities.) At the Summit last week there was, of course, ample evidence of innovative and committed approaches to bringing this figure up further. Apart from those from BILD itself, I spoke with people from Skillnet Group and Change, for example; and two Sheffield City Council employees, one involved in education and so stressing the importance of starting young when it comes to fostering expectations and ambitions in the direction of employment, the other with 25 years’ experience of getting people with learning disabilities into jobs.
Many of the issues they were raising had been discussed by Cardiff University’s Stephen Beyer at his recent seminar (see his 61-slide presentation here) in this Unit’s popular, ongoing seminar series on learning disability services being chaired by my colleague Martin Stevens.
Here at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit particular mind is being given to the quality of joint working between adult services departments in local authorities and staff at Jobcentre Plus. Widespread disquiet about the efficacy of this joint working was a finding in Martin Stevens’ and Jess Harris’ Jobs First evaluation. Speaking last week with Ann Chivers, Chief Executive of BILD, it was clear that she shares this sentiment and feels that at least part of the problem lies in the fact that Jobcentre Plus offices are under-equipped and staff not well-enough trained. It is worth noting that the Summit heard that it is now no longer to be national policy to have a Disability Employment Adviser in every Jobcentre Plus—it will be a matter of local initiative.
Aside from this apparent skills deficit (at Jobcentre Plus, I mean; there is an irony here), one of the challenges lies in the communications and work practices of adult services departments, part of local government, with Jobcentre Plus offices, which are organised and directed (as well as funded, of course) by central government. Difficulties stemming from different organisational cultures are also potentially compounded when it comes to the use of personal budgets by people with learning disabilities for supported employment purposes. My question to the chair of the meeting about the relative funding split between the DH and DWP with respect to personal budgets in this new strategy went unanswered, most likely because agreement has not yet been reached.
But from the point of view of the person with learning disabilities who comes to Jobcentre Plus via adult care, these are plainly legitimate questions to ask: how confident and capable are the Jobcentre Plus staff vis-à-vis the specific demands in this field, and how good are the working relationships between the social care practitioners and the Jobcentre Plus staff? And to these questions, local authority adult services may reasonably add another: to what extent is it their role (as opposed to the DWP’s) to cover the often considerable costs of placing, training and maintaining people with learning disabilities in work?
Photograph of Stephen Martineau by Clem Harris.