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‘Mel Stride’s Remarks on the Public Using Mental Health to Avoid Work Hide a Culture of Failure and Secrecy at the Department He Runs’

The founder of an employability and recruitment solutions consultancy lifts the lid on what is it like to work with the Department for Work and Pensions

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mel Stride, has suggested the culture around mental health has ‘gone too far’

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Mel Stride recently suggested that the culture around mental health has gone too far, with too many people using it as an excuse not to work.

The Work and Pensions Secretary told the Telegraph last month that there was a “real risk that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions” which hold people back and increase benefits bills.

Stride added that there is a “danger that this has gone too far” and suggested that, as a culture, “we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health”.

Some 2.8 million people are not working due to health issues in the UK and welfare spending is forecast to be £80.9 billion in 2023-2024. As of February, the UK had 932,000 vacancies, according to the Office for National Statistics, and despite falling by 26,000 from November 2023 to January 2024 – and for the 19th consecutive period – there were still 700,000 more people out of work than when the pandemic began. The UK has had no growth in more than a decade.

While Stride was happy to hit out at people claiming benefits, few questions have been asked about what the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has, and is, doing about it.

On its website, the department lists helping people to “move into work and supporting those already in work to progress, with the aim of increasing overall workforce participation” as one of its key responsibilities.

When I founded Recro, an employability and recruitment solutions consultancy and training company in 2009, getting 30% into work was considered an industry measure of success, and figures for the London Skills and Employment Board found that two-thirds of employers couldn’t hire people with the skills and competencies they required. So clearly, a lot of work needed to be done to upskill the unemployed into work.

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The Treasury and DWP operate on 6% additionality. So, for every 100 jobseekers, they expect 24 to find themselves work. Job centres and providers, including national programmes such as ‘Restart’ – the Government’s flagship back-to-work programme for Universal Credit claimants who have been out of employment for nine months or more – get an additional 6% into work. According to research by Politics Home last year, each job created through Restart costs £40,476.

In 2012, when I started delivering programmes in partnership with DWP, there was no mechanism in place to learn from successful programmes, replicate and scale.

We partnered with a number of London boroughs that had huge regeneration programmes with thousands of jobs attached and residents who needed jobs. DWP contract and partnership managers said Recro’s was the most effective and successful programme they had seen, often getting 50% into work.

But these programmes were never repeated or scaled due to procurement procedures and attitudes, with job centre managers saying that “commercials (the procurement team in DWP) get nervous”. The rationale never made sense to me and didn’t appear to be challenged.

A parliamentary question by Shadow Employment Minister Seema Malhotra revealed in February 2021 that the department monitors performance at a district level but does not collate it nationally, so opportunities to learn have potentially been missed.

In 2016, DWP launched the DPS (Dynamic Purchasing System), a route to market for job centres to work with small and medium-sized enterprises to meet jobseekers needs going unmet. Despite its proven success, Recro did not consistently win contracts.

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Transparency is the Answer

Last year, MP John Penrose led a campaign calling for greater transparency in the performance of all employment support programmes. This was backed by a cross-section of think tanks including the Fabian Society, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute, Spotlight on Corruption, and Transparency International UK.

At the time, Stride said it would be cost prohibitive to obtain the data, that they don’t need to gather it under the Cabinet Office playbook and the spend does not fall within the Government’s KPI data publication policy.

DPS2 (which replaced the Dynamic Purchasing System) follows a process where buyers buy blind. They are not allowed to know whether a programme they bought delivered what it said it would.

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While the Secretary of State in his response believed that DWP doesn’t have the performance data and that districts (regional offices) do, the reality is they are told they can’t use it by the DWP procurement team.

The National Audit Office has called for greater transparency for years, as has the Work and Pensions Committee, but DWP continues to resist.

Some of the reasons the procurement team provided me with for the way purchasing decisions are made is that it thinks it would be against procurement law and fair and open competition to measure performance.


What is Going On in Treasury?

The Treasury got £1 billion back from DWP unspent on Kickstart, the Government’s £2 billion flagship scheme to create new jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-tern unemployment which was launched in 2020.

It was described as “chaotic” by the Public Accounts Committee in 2022, as it only managed to help 168,000 people of the original 250,000 target. DWP, it wrote, “neglected to put in place basic management information that would be expected for a multi-billion-pound grant programme”.

Further to a meeting I had with Treasury in 2022 about problems with DWP, it contacted the department and received a stock response saying: “DWP are running supplier engagement sessions in the form of supplier surveys and supplier forums… If you have further comments or suggestions…”

Last year, the Treasury twice went to market asking other government departments to bid for funding to find out what works at getting people into work.

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The late Lord Kerslake, when he was chief executive of the civil service and the National Audit Office, described a culture of denial and a culture of good news at DWP.

One in six young people is NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) – more than 850,000 – according to ONS data from December 2023. Millions are economically inactive, a huge number of people over 50 are looking for work, and more than 2.5 million can’t work due to ill health. So the news at DWP isn’t good at all.

In January 2022, I wrote to Stride when he was chair of the Treasury Committee with a briefing paper on key issues at DWP, offering to explain what was actually going on there, what that costs the UK, and how to fix it. The offer still stands.

Treasury and DWP declined to comment.


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