Government launches £1.5m fund for ‘return to work’ projects

Move forms part of wider strategy to address causes of the gender pay gap

The government has announced a £1.5m fund to help private sector companies assist individuals who want to return to work following a career break of at least a year – but has warned organisations that they must also invest in long-term sustainable programmes to tackle the gender pay gap.

The Returners Fund, spearheaded by the minister for women and equalities, will be available in grant form to approximately 15-18 projects seeking to help returning workers update their skills. The government defines a worker in this case as someone who left paid employment for at least a year to take on a caring responsibility. 

The fund, aimed at assisting returns to paid work at a level aligned with individuals’ skills and experience, is accompanied by a best practice guide for employers seeking to deliver return to work programmes. This outlines the business case for returnships, and offers case studies from both ‘returner’ and employers’ experience. 

However, the government’s guidance for employers, as well as the toolkit and fund, all come from the same £5m Theresa May promised in the 2017 spring budget to help people back into work after a career break. 

Priority will be given to projects that focus on SMEs and employers outside London, as well as employment sectors that have a poor track record with returners. These include retail, law and telecoms, STEM industries and the creative sectors. 

The Government Equalities Office said it was also particularly interested in applications from projects that focus on supporting people with protected characteristics, including those with BAME backgrounds, and disabled and older workers. 

The move forms part of the government’s wider strategy to find solutions for the gender pay gap. It said that analysis from an Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Labour Force Survey showed that 89 per cent of those who take time out of paid work to care for family were women. 

ONS figures published in November 2017 also revealed that an estimated 1.9 million women were economically inactive for caring reasons – a large number of whom had professional or managerial experience. 

Announcing the fund, Amber Rudd, home secretary and minister for women and equalities, described the figures as “striking”. 

“Too often, people struggle to get back into paid work after taking time out to care for others. That is a huge loss not only to those individuals, but to our economy and to businesses all over the country,” she said in a statement. 

“That’s why I’m delighted to announce that this government will be launching a £1.5m fund to support people, particularly women, back into work after time out looking after children and other relatives. 

“By offering meaningful work that pays, the fund will give people who want to return to employment the opportunity to use their valuable skills, talents and experience.”

The government has stipulated that returnship projects must be able to demonstrate self-sustainability beyond the initial funding of the grant, with long-term plans for recruiting and supporting returners in place – which Sam Smethers, the Fawcett Society’s CEO, described as “key”. 

"We welcome this fund – it will be particularly important for women. But the key is to support women back into work at the level they were at before, and to sustain them in work longer-term,” she told People Management

"Too many women returners feel they have no choice but to trade down and work below their potential or end up in insecure employment."

A study published by accountancy firm PwC yesterday (5 March) revealed that the UK has already fallen from 14th to 15th place in a ranking of 33 OECD countries in 2017, based on five key indicators of female economic empowerment. 

The Women in Work Index said a key cause of the gender pay gap was pressure on women to combine work with ongoing caring commitments, with professional opportunities constrained by the lack of flexible or part-time roles available for senior and higher-skilled jobs. 

Commenting on the findings, Laura Hinton, PwC’s executive board member and head of people, said policy incentives, such as the Returnships Fund, or advocating for shared parental leave, were vital to the success of business-led action for change. 

“Despite the push for organisations to publish their gender pay gaps in the UK, progress will be slow until businesses start addressing the complex underlying reasons. Merely reporting numbers without concrete action won’t change anything,” she said. 

“Action needs to focus on bringing more women through to higher-paying and higher-skilled roles, such as those in the technology sector – providing greater flexibility so that part-time working isn’t the default option – and encouraging more men to take up shared parental leave, so that it’s not always women who take extended breaks from the workplace.” 

Expressions of interest for the first round of bidding for the fund must be submitted by 30 March, with the second round of bidding closing on 16 August. 

Catrina Smith, partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, said the guidance “may also become, by default, a benchmark for employers and, if they fail to follow such a policy without good reason, they could find themselves in difficulty in the future”.