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  • Author or Editor: Paul Sissons x
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In a significant change to the UK social security system, the introduction of Universal Credit has seen the broadening of labour market activation to cover a larger number of population sub-groups. This change has also prompted a greater concern with employment sustainability and progression in work in active labour market policy (ALMP), as the benefit extends coverage to those in work and on low incomes. Implicit in this shift is the emergence of a greater emphasis on employment quality alongside the previously predominant focus on the quantity of employment opportunities. Concurrently, ‘good work’ is increasingly prominent in the policy discourse in the UK. Yet within a work-first system in which jobseekers are encouraged, and can be mandated, to accept available opportunities, there is only limited scope for public employment services to engage with a good work agenda, or to exert upwards institutional pressure on job quality. A context of labour and skills shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic offers ALMP an opportunity to redress this situation. It also opens up questions about the relative prospects for progression in the internal labour market vis-à-vis the external labour market.

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Low pay is a significant and growing issue in many developed economies. Sectoral approaches are often used in both economic development and labour market policy, yet there is little evidence on how low pay and earnings mobility vary by sector. This article investigates this issue in the UK. It shows pronounced sectoral variations in low pay and earnings mobility. It highlights the policy implications of growth in large, low paying sectors. While policymakers have focused on high-wage, high-skill sectors, efforts to improve productivity in low-wage sectors could improve living standards and the UK’s economic performance.

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Individuals claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the replacement benefit for Incapacity Benefits, are increasingly being expected to prepare for a return to work. Drawing on a survey with claimants, this paper highlights the critical role which pre-claim experiences have on these outcomes. Those coming onto the benefit from a work background are likely to move off from ESA and into employment more quickly. The evidence presented, however, also demonstrates that health and health trajectories remain central determinants of future employment experiences. Overall, the analysis suggests that ESA is least effective at helping the most disadvantaged groups.

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UK employment policy is at a critical juncture and policies need to respond to unemployment and broader economic hardship induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, both immediate and longer-term policies need to take account of the body of research examining active labour market policies (ALMPs) to avoid replicating the problems of work-first employment support. This is increasingly important due to the growing numbers of applicants and former Tax Credit recipients to Universal Credit, a policy which extends conditional social security to those in work on a low income. Ensuring research into these developments influences policymakers should unite social security and employment researchers more broadly, as this unprecedented policy change has the potential to transform the way individuals, the state and employers interact, and the power balance between them. In this chapter, we explore the role of social policy researchers in this context and argue that policy development and research in this area to date has suffered from uneven engagement with diverse actors and research communities. We advocate a ‘pragmatic realist’ approach to policy engagement reflecting on examples of social policy engagement in the science–policy interface while also drawing on our own varied experiences of engaging with policymakers in relation to ALMPs.

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