Disability employment faces a cliff edge

  • Demand for personalised employment services at Scope surge by 230% in a year.
  • Fears mount for disability unemployment rates as local coronavirus restrictions are introduced and national furlough scheme is wound up.
  • Disabled people are applying for hundreds of jobs.
  • As coronavirus looks set to push more disabled people into unemployment, charity calls for urgent welfare reform and an end to sanctions.

According to the Office of National Statistics since March 2020 670,000 people have lost their jobs and the number of welfare claimants has increased by 120% [1].

As fears mount that these figures will only grow, research by Scope found [2]:

  • 48% of unemployed disabled people are concerned about their employment prospects for the rest of 2020
  • 36% of disabled people are concerned about being made redundant

The charity has also seen referrals soar to its flexible and tailored employment support programme – Support to Work. In June, annual referrals to the bespoke 12-week programme increased 65%. That figure surged to 230% in September 2020.

Support to Work is a free service funded by Virgin Media as part of its initiative to support a million disabled people with the skills and confidence to get and stay in work by the end of 2020, and includes practice interviews, confidence building techniques and emotional support.

Penalising disabled people

Many disabled people who are not in work rely on benefits such as Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance. They often come with inflexible strings attached.

If someone does not or is unable to comply with them, then benefit payments can be stopped. This is called sanctioning.

For example, a disabled person will be sanctioned for missing a Job Centre Plus appointment.

The joint Scope-Virgin Media Support to Work programme is voluntary and comes without sanctions. The programme works with disabled people when they are ready to move into work and support continues after employment starts. While sanctions push disabled people into poverty, create unnecessary stress and anxiety and have a hugely detrimental impact on their ability to find work [3].

In 2019, 75% of the 132 disabled people who found a job through Support to Work were still in employment after 13 weeks [4].

As the national furlough scheme comes to a close at the end of October and the country braces itself for a winter of more uncertainty, Scope is urging the Government to not forget disabled people.

James Taylor, Executive Director of Strategy, Impact and Social Change at disability equality charity Scope, said:

“Our Support to Work service is seeing unprecedented demand from disabled jobseekers. It is getting results, proving a highly personalised and flexible approach is needed now more than ever to help disabled people find and stay in work.

“As the national furlough scheme ends and the reality of recession takes hold, we urge the Government to replicate this model, rather than continue with sanctioning and punishing disabled people, pushing them further away from the workplace.

“It is essential that the upcoming Welfare Green Paper leads to be a better welfare system that enables disabled people to live independently. Coronavirus and its economic fallout could cause disastrous damage to disability employment. The Government must not allow disabled people to have their opportunities limited due to the economic downturn.

Jeff Dodds, Chief Operating Officer at Virgin Media said:

“We are proud to play our part in supporting disabled people with employment advice and skills by funding the Support to Work service.

“As demand for the online service soars, it is clear that accessible, flexible and easy to use digital technology can transform people’s lives.

“Since 2017, we’ve been working with Scope to support a million disabled people with the skills and confidence to get and stay in work, and I’d urge other businesses to do all they can to support disabled people during this challenging time, and join our free #WorkWithMe programme to become a more inclusive employer.”


[1] Office for National Statistics Labour market overview, UK: October 2020

[2] Polling by YouGov: Total sample size was 4013 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 8 to10 July 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

[3] Welfare Conditionality Project (2018), Final findings: disabled people. Research by the Welfare Conditionality Project found that the application of welfare conditionality consistently had the opposite effect and pushed disabled people who were subject to mandatory work-related requirements, under threat of benefit sanction, further away from work.

Work and Pensions Committee (2018) “The Coalition Government had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime when it was introduced in 2012. It said the policy would be reviewed on an ongoing basis to understand its impact and the extent to which it was achieving its objectives. But 6 years later, it is none the wiser. The lack of any such evaluation is unacceptable. Furthermore, without evidence to support the significantly longer sanctions introduced, or data to understand the behavioural impact of escalated sanctions for repeated failures, the policy appears to be nothing other than arbitrarily punitive.”

National Audit Office (NAO) (2016), Benefit sanctions. A study by the NAO concluded that sanctions “reduced [ESA] claimants’ time in employment” and that “most of the reduction [of time in employment] meant people spent more time claiming, suggesting sanctions may have discouraged some claimants from working”.

[4] Scope, 2020 A Co-Produced Evaluation of the Support to Work Service: Jessica Bricknell, Amy Frounks, Ruth Murran and Giles Skerry

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