Serious concerns have been raised over the government’​s specialist disability employment programme, after new figures suggested it has helped only a few hundred disabled people with high support needs into jobs.

Work Choice was launched in October 2010 and aims to provide intensive in-work support to those disabled people with the greatest barriers to employment, but figures for its first 18 months show that only half of those on the programme were claiming any kind of disability benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has also been asked why it has no record of the “​primary disability”​ of nearly two-thirds of those who have started on the Work Choice programme.

There are also concerns that fewer than five per cent of those who have started on Work Choice have “​moderate to severe”​ learning difficulties, and less than 0.5 per cent have “​severe”​ mental health conditions, despite both categories being key to how the DWP will measure the success of the programme.

The figures show that only 310 of 2,730 people on Work Choice who claim both disability living allowance and incapacity benefits have so far found a job.

The overall statistics for the programme are slightly better, with one in seven finding a job.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said it was unclear from the figures exactly who the programme was helping, but that the statistics “​certainly do not look particularly impressiv​e”​.

She said: “​It does not appear that the group I had assumed would be targeted by Work Choice are the group who are being helped into sustainable work by it.”​

She said she had assumed that it would focus on disabled people in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) –​ those on out-of-work disability benefits who face the highest barriers to work –​ and some of those in the ESA work-related activity group.

Dame Anne also said she found it “​very hard to understand how you could qualify for Work Choice and not be on a disability benefit.”​

She said she had believed that Work Choice was for those disabled people who “​should not be written off but in order to get work needed a great deal of help and support”​ as a result of their impairment and the barriers they faced.

She added: “​From those numbers, it does not look as though that is the group that is on Work Choice.”​

Richard Currie, an executive member of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said one of the concerns about the “​payment by results”​ model used by the government was that it gave the organisations delivering Work Choice the incentive to spend more time and resources finding work for those who were easiest to help.

He said: “​The fear is that those furthest away from the Labour market and in most need of a higher level of support will not be supported in the correct way, and that the providers will cherry-pick those closest to the job market.”​

The British Association of Supported Employment (BASE) said it also believed providers were “​cherry-picking”​ people who were easier to help into work, at the expense of those with higher support needs.

And it said it was “​astonish​ed”​ that DWP was unable to describe the main impairment of 65 per cent of those who started Work Choice.

BASE described the low numbers on the programme of those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties and high support needs as “​unaccept​able”​.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “​It is early days for this programme. We are working to address issues and improve performance across the programme to support more disabled people.”​

She said Work Choice was designed for disabled people who need significant support to enter the labour market, but was “​a voluntary programme”​ and those taking part did not need to be claiming a disability benefit.

She said that changes being made to give providers more flexibility over the length of the initial stage of the programme may be “​particularly helpful”​ for those with “​moderate to severe”​ learning difficulties or “​severe”​ mental health conditions.

She admitted that details of people’​s impairments had only begun to be captured by the computer system from May 2011.

And she said Work Choice had been designed to prevent “​cherry-picking”​.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat education minister Sarah Teather today announced details of a £​3 million trial of supported internships for 16-25-year-olds with higher support needs, set to begin in September at 14 colleges across England.

The programme –​ part of the package of special educational needs reforms Teather announced last month –​ could be adopted by all further education colleges from September 2013.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabili​tynewsser​


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