Work-focused interviews: recent rules and research

Issue 198 (June 2007)

Simon Osborne looks at the most recent rules and at what the latest research suggests about their likely effectiveness.

Incapacity - Pathways to Work

Work-focused interviews ('WFIs') have always been an important component of the Pathways to Work scheme, aimed at increasing the numbers of people on incapacity benefits who return to work. The scheme, along with rules on WFIs,1 was introduced in pilot areas in 2003 and subsequently has been extended to more areas and in some cases existing as well as new claimants. The 2006 Green Paper A New Deal for Welfare: Empowering People to Work proposed the 'rollout' of the scheme to cover the whole country. Regulations that came into force late last year (see below for details) provide the legal basis for that process.

The Explanatory Notes to the regulations locate these developments very much in the Government belief that, 'everyone who wants to return to work should receive active and effective encouragement and support to do so'. (As usual, the effect is that rules providing for compulsion and severe penalties are presented in the context of 'encouragement and support', although the Notes do at least mention that the WFIs are 'mandatory'.) The Notes restate the intention to 'rollout Pathways support [sic] to all new and repeat customers by 2008'.

Rolling out of Pathways

The 'rolling-out' of the Pathways-style WFIs is provided for by The Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 2006, SI No.3088. This is done simply by providing that a person affected by them is anyone claiming incapacity benefits who makes a claim (i.e., a new claim) on or after 29 December 2006 at a DWP office, 'which is designated by the Secretary of State as a Pathways to Work office.' So there is no need to make more regulations specifying new areas, or indeed any more regulations at all, in order to apply Pathways WFIs to the entire country. It is simply a matter of whether the relevant local office has been designated as a Pathways to Work office. The Notes say that the rollout will be publicised on the Jobcentre Plus website and through local publicity in the individual offices.

However, that will not be the end. Although the Pathways WFIs apply in the main to new claimants, in a number of areas (where Pathways was introduced in 2003 or 2004) they already apply to claimants who claimed on or after 27 October 1997 or 5 April 1998. In one pilot area (in the west of England) they apply to all incapacity claimants, old and new.2 Further amendments will no doubt gradually extend the application of the scheme to existing as well as old claimants, although exactly when that will happen is unclear.

Lone parents

The issue of increasing conditionality for lone parents in general and extending work-focused interviews in particular has been one which has much exercised the minds of government and official policy-makers (see Bulletin 197, p. 11). Recent regulations (The Social Security (Work-focused Interviews for Lone Parents) Amendment Regulations 2007, SI No.1034) ensure that in 2007 and 2008 conditionality is extended so that work-focused interviews for lone parents claiming income support (other than on incapacity grounds) apply every six months, and that in some cases they apply on a quarterly basis. The Explanatory Notes to the regulations make clear that they are in the context of the proposals in the 2006 Green Paper.

The changes are mainly to do with timing of repeat WFIs and when they apply - the substance of the WFIs themselves is unaffected. The new regulations work by amending the existing regulations providing a specific work-focused interview scheme for lone parents and also a basic Jobcentre Plus scheme.3 The idea is that six monthly WFIs are introduced in two phases, in order to manage the impact of the increased WFI regime on Jobcentre Plus. Also, quarterly WFIs are introduced in certain areas, while the pre-existing, separate quarterly WFI rules are abolished in order to prevent the WFI regime from becoming 'overly complex' (some may feel that that point was reached some time ago). A mailshot has been issued to all affected lone parents.

Six-monthly interviews for lone parents

Specifically, from 30 April 2007, lone parents whose youngest child is aged 5-13 will have a WFI every six months, and from 28 April 2008 all lone parents (i.e., whatever the age of their youngest child) will have a WFI at least every six months. Also, the lone parent scheme is amended so that from 30 April 2007, lone parents in specified areas - the New Deal Plus for Lone Parents areas - and whose youngest child is aged 11, 12 or 13 will have to attend on a quarterly basis. Concurrently, the separate and slightly different rules providing for a quarterly WFI scheme (which applied in the former Extended Schools Childcare areas, although confusingly these now also seem to be referred to as New Deal Plus for Lone Parents areas) are abolished. The Explanatory Notes say that as a result of the latter, lone parents with a youngest child aged 12-13 in Torfaen, Fife and Aberdeenshire will receive two fewer interviews per year.

Recent research

Recent research continues to confirm the impression left by older research (e.g., see Bulletin 193, p. 6, on initial Pathways evaluations) that the compulsory nature of the WFIs has a very limited beneficial effect overall, and is a real problem for some claimants. In research on back-to-work 'interventions' published earlier this year, it was stated that 'DWP programmes where participants are volunteers tend to exhibit significant impacts while mandatory programmes produced mixed results'.4

Regarding the application of Pathways WFIs to existing claimants, recent DWP research 5 reveals that existing 'customers' tended to have 'more complex and entrenched barriers to work' than new ones, and, although they supported the overall idea of Pathways in principle, they questioned the timing of the interventions for those with chronic conditions. Some felt that the legitimacy of their claim was being questioned, and even Personal Advisers, although supportive of conditionality in principle, felt that, 'there was a disproportionate emphasis given to the threat of sanction'.

Regarding lone parents, recent DWP research 6 on the New Deal Plus for Lone Parents (in which compulsory quarterly WFIs have been applied already) also suggests that conditionality is not an especially effective part of the package. Advisers felt that 'discretion was required in the frequency with which different types of customer should be seen'. The researchers found that, 'the best leverage to engage lone parents has been obtained from the financial offer', especially the in-work credit that is part of the package, and that 'the pilot works best for those lone parents who are more job-ready or who are undecided . . . the persuasiveness of the financial elements, the training offer and the support offered by advisers has been very effective in "tipping the balance" towards work'. In short, here as elsewhere, the carrot was far more effective than the stick.

Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Therefore older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.

  • 1. The Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2003 ('the 2003 regulations)
  • 2. See the definition of 'relevant person' in the amended version of reg 2 of the 2003 regulations
  • 3. See the definition of 'relevant person' in the amended version of reg 2 of the 2003 regulations
  • 4. See the definition of 'relevant person' in the amended version of reg 2 of the 2003 regulations
  • 5. Pathways to Work: Extension to Existing Customers (Matched Case Study), DWP Research Report No. 418
  • 6. New Deal Plus for Lone Parents qualitative evaluation, DWP Research Report No. 426