Labour outlines plans for getting older workers back to work

Labour’s Jon Ashworth has outlined plans to overcome some of the barriers older workers face in getting back to work.

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Labour will modernise job centres, reform employment support services to ensure support is tailored to older workers and change the social security system to help people overcome barriers to work, according to its Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary.

Speaking at the Centre for Social Justice today, Jon Ashworth said that the Government’s current approach to supporting older workers and disabled people was “frankly a scandal” at a time when the number of people on long-term sick leave has risen to 2.5m, up 500,000 since 2019. And he added that centrally imposed employment support services seem like “a bewildering spaghetti junction” of fragmented initiatives, often offering one-size-fits-all approaches that are ineffective and ignore the particular needs of individuals and local communities.

Ahsworth said Labour would expand employment support for those with health issues and draw from best practice and partner with the voluntary and private sector working at a local level, shifting resources to local communities.

He also pledged to modernise Jobcentres so they also focus on work progression and brokering flexible opportunities. Other promises included a pledge to reform the Access to Work scheme so future employers know what support will be available for individuals if they find a job and to reform the Work Capability Assessment regime.

It has since emerged that Labour may also embed career advisers in health services, including addiction clinics, rehab centres and primary care.

Ashworth was speaking of the need to tackle lower employment rates since the pandemic and said the UK had seen the biggest drop in the employment rate of the major G7 economies. He said this was caused by ill health – physical and mental – and early retirement, even though unemployment tends to be bad for health and the more difficult it becomes for them to return to a job.

He stated: “No responsible party seeking government can duck this challenge. We need new reforms and to apply new thinking to welfare to change lives, spread opportunity and helping people find appropriate, supportive, rewarding, well paid quality work. It’s good for them, good for society and good for the economy. I want to be clear. For people who can’t work, they deserve security with inclusion not fear or threats. A Labour government will always guarantee that.

“But when we know there are hundreds of thousands of people currently out of work and economically inactive who may want to participate in employment with the right support, then we owe it to them and their families to give them a fair chance to participate in decent employment.”

Some have argued, however, that targeting JobCentres may not be the best avenue for reaching older workers. Aveek Bhattacharya from cross-party think-tank the Social Market Foundation says: “Getting older people, particularly those that have left the labour force, to engage more with careers guidance is a laudable and sensible objective. It is also an extremely difficult one, and trying to do it through Jobcentres might make the task tougher still. Labour might be better off investing in the existing National Careers Service, and strengthening its brand – using it as the vehicle to find older workers roles rewarding and flexible enough to convince them it is worth their while to come back.”

Meanwhile, reports suggest the Government may be considering plans to ensure disability benefits claimants who return to work can continue receiving disability benefits by tapering them in a similar way to the Universal Credit taper. In addition, senior ministers are reported to be pressing officials to consider exempting over-50s returning to work from income tax for six months to a year.

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