Opinion

Sunak and the DWP are trying to push people back to work. We think there's a better way

Big Issue Recruit is a person-centred service, supporting individuals pre-, during and post-recruitment

Rishi Sunak delivering his speech, 19 April. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There has been a great deal in the news recently regarding welfare reforms planned by prime minister Rishi Sunak, aimed at the so-called “sick note culture” that is said to exist in the UK.  

Sunak claims benefits have become a “lifestyle choice” for many people and are causing a “spiralling” welfare bill for the government and the public purse.  

The prime minister pointed towards recent stats from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing a “worrying” proportion of younger potential workers among a record high of 2.8 million people out of work as of February 2024. Rishi Sunak has since outlined his intention to implement reforms that push people from this group into paid jobs.   

However, ONS reported that, of this number, there are just 280,000 people that are currently ‘economically inactive’ who have given reasons other than caring for a loved one, sick, student, being retired or being “discouraged”.  

Things have ramped up even further since, as it was announced recently that the government is considering significant changes to the disability benefits system. Reforms to personal independence payments (PIP) could include stopping regular cash payments and instead offering claimants one-off grants for things such as home adaptations. 

Over the past 18 months, I have led and grown a specialist recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit, which provides those facing barriers to work with the training and support they need to enter the workplace.  

Like the government, we believe that, with the right approach, people can be moved into sustainable employment. However, Big Issue Recruit’s mission is to give marginalised people the same access to jobs as everyone else. Therefore, we believe the solution to ensuring people facing barriers to work find sustainable and fulfilling employment is to put in place measures and programmes that offer bespoke support for individuals on a case-by-case basis.   

The prime minister isn’t acknowledging the fact that many people who have never worked or been out of work for some time really struggle to get into sustainable paid employment. Many don’t have the confidence or resilience to compete in the current job market. They are often held back due to a lack of digital skills, health, low confidence or previous setbacks in their life or career. People face a multitude of obstacles, from battling ATS systems to applying for sometimes hundreds of jobs and receiving limited or no feedback at all. It all serves to further dismantle people’s confidence.  

At the end of last year, Big Issue reported that an increase in sanctions is evidenced to have a direct increase on the number of people claiming disability benefits citing mental health issues. We have been contacted by hundreds of people who have shared harrowing experiences of proving their eligibility for benefits, leaving them in extreme distress, more impoverished and in some case suicidal.   

Our experience tells us that this is the worst possible state of mind in which to apply for work, represent yourself well and find sustainable employment. We believe that we have a much more effective method of bringing people back to work and it’s cheaper.   

The game-changing element of Big Issue Recruit is that our job coaches provide tailored one-to-one support from the very first meeting, where they will discuss the ways that they can work with the candidate to mitigate barriers and, crucially, build the candidate’s confidence over the coming weeks or months.  

Our job coaches often provide the first point of a resilience network – we transform people’s perception of work and what they can achieve. Meanwhile, the government’s “sick note culture” rhetoric simply serves to dismantle people’s confidence.  

Big Issue Recruit is a person-centred service, supporting individuals pre-, during and post-employment. Our candidates range from prison leavers, caregivers, those with skills gaps, to people experiencing social, health, financial or digital barriers to work.  

On signing up, candidates are partnered with a personal job coach to understand and determine their needs and goals. Our coaches build confidence, skills and resilience and coach individuals through the selection process to secure their desired roles. Finally, job coaches will work with candidates to establish a great relationship with their new employer and support them in their new role and career on an ongoing basis.  

We recently reported more than £755,000 of social value in Big Issue Recruit’s first year of operation. To date, we have registered and supported 250 candidates with 106 securing employment, while 153 candidates have achieved work readiness.  

We have shown that, with the right approach we can get the right people with the right skills into sustainable employment. We would urge the government to review our model to make sure that their welfare reforms do not leave those facing barriers to work out in the cold. We want to see taxpayers’ money invested in scaling solutions like Big Issue Recruit, working with major employers to get more people back into work and create system change through inclusive practices and workplaces of the future.  

Now we have proved the service works, with every £1 we spend generating £2.80 of social value, and we are growing. We are seeking employers to work with us to fill their vacancies and bring new candidates into the labour market.   

Katy Wright is Big Issue Recruit’s programme director. To learn about how your business can support people with barriers to employment into work, register now. View the Impact Report at Big Issue Recruit.  

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For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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