When journalists need to illustrate welfare and benefit issues they typically head for Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, where the level of incapacity benefit claimants is among the highest in the UK. They present a well-worn story of the consequences of personal failure, laziness and welfare dependency. Politicians too have been to Merthyr Tydfil, the latest being Iain Duncan Smith, who urged the local jobless to in search of work. The town is stereotyped as the epitome of voluntary worklessness.
The reality is very different. The problems of Merthyr Tydfil are structural and not grounded in personal characteristics of the local population, which was responsible for much of the iron and steel production that built the British empire. There has been no genetic modification of the population who once were the very hardest working of the British working class. Rather, there has been an economic collapse of local employment opportunities and now more than 30 years of joblessness. If the local population is resigned to high levels of worklessness, it is because that is the reality of local economic opportunity.
Despite this difficult economic background there has been a flow of people from welfare to work, aided by a range of interventions that support people in the transition from long-term economic activity back to the world of work. Research by the University of Glamorgan – sponsored by Dai Havard, the local MP – has examined the barriers to returning to work and how they have been overcome by local agencies providing a wide range of support services for those making the difficult journey back to work. In , the complexity of the welfare-to-work process is examined from the perspective of local employers, welfare-to-work agencies and, most importantly, those who are making the transition.
Central to success is the provision of personalised and flexible support mechanisms that recognise the diverse range of personal issues that may create barriers to a return to work. The most critical barrier is the health of the individual. Contrary to the stereotype, the majority of claimants of incapacity benefit experience very real health problems, with mental health issues affecting approximately one third of claimants.
Other barriers include caring responsibilities, basic skills deficits, issues of personal confidence and access to transport. Often these are compounded, and experienced by the individual as a complex set of personal barriers that have developed over many years. The successful agencies are able to help individuals through the provision of flexible support – which often is in place for extended periods of time leading up to the work placement and beyond – to ensure that the most difficult period of initial adjustment to the workplace is successfully managed.
The most successful of the local interventions has been the , which has seen an effective partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh assembly government's regeneration programme. More than 4,500 individuals have been placed in work in the four years of the programme, illustrating the considerable untapped potential workforce among the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
Alongside JobMatch is a range of smaller, localised agencies providing essential support services. Concerns are emerging that, as the DWP appoints new national UK agencies to deliver its the local knowledge and approach developed in Merthyr Tydfil will be lost. In particular, local practitioners are fearful that the extended time scales required to secure a transition to work may not be supported under a welfare-to-work regime that is more punitive than supportive. These concerns also exist against a backdrop of rising job losses in the area, making the task of finding employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed and economically inactive even harder.