Joanne Brown discusses preliminary findings from her ongoing PhD research which is exploring the lived experiences of welfare support and sanctions for people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
Welfare advisers implement policy at the ground level, but to what extent does this affect the way policy is shaped? Initial interviews with ESA recipients have indicated that two factors are relevant. Both the approach of the adviser and the constraints they work within can influence the way in which a welfare claimant engages or disengages with back-to-work support.
One interviewee, Sally, had a degree and previously worked as a teacher before becoming disabled. She told me that she was encouraged to apply for inappropriate literacy and numeracy training, which was well below her skill level. Sally’s experience was that despite heavy pressure to find work (including being encouraged to apply for retail jobs), there was little support on offer to help her get back into work. Sally lost faith in Jobcentre Plus as a service to help her re-enter employment. She said:
‘She [the Jobcentre Plus adviser] said you know we need to maybe think about training and stuff. I said right well what training could you offer and she went well literacy and numeracy level two. I said I’ve got a degree and I’ve got a PGCE…so I’ve clearly got literacy and numeracy skills which is GSCE level…. And then they went oh well we can’t offer you anything.’
This implies that the relationship between those who implement policy at ground level and those who are affected by it is crucial to the way in which people engage with welfare and work related policies. It also raises questions around the wider system and the resources that are available to the adviser in order to support people back into work.
Steve, who had been previously employed and was educated to degree level before becoming visually impaired, described a similar experience when attending a meeting with his adviser at Jobcentre Plus. He felt that his adviser listened and wanted to help but had neither the qualifications nor the resources available to help. Steve was only offered training such as attending a CV writing class and therefore chose to seek employment independently:
‘Well I stopped going after the last time I was there, the employment adviser said that I probably know more about disability employment advice than they did.’
The idea that advisers are happy to help, but are similarly limited in the level of control and availability of the resources for ESA claimants who are seeking employment, was echoed by Jack. He said:
‘Generally whatever I asked for she [the Jobcentre Plus adviser] would try and do as much as she could you know.’
These stories begin to illustrate the lack of appropriate support available to help ESA recipients who want to enter employment. In some cases it means claimants even disengage with Jobcentre Plus as a way of getting back-to-work support.