Work Programme

The Work Programme, the Government’s flagship ‘back to work’ scheme, was launched in June 2011. It aims to tackle long-term unemployment by paying firms to give those unemployed for 12 months or more specialist support to get a job (the qualifying period is 9 months for under 25s and for those coming off Incapacity Benefit). This was to bring together all previous types of employment support into one and be the biggest, best and cheapest such programme ever.

While in principle I support schemes like this – Labour’s New Deal was first – the sad fact is that the Work Programme isn’t working.

For the first 18 months DWP Ministers refused to give any interim outcome data on the ground that it had to be properly verified first (and forbade the providers from doing so either). In the interim, the Work and Pensions Select Committee spoke to the Minister responsible at the time, Chris Grayling, on 19 March 2012.

When the Government did eventually release figures on the first 14 months of the Work Programme on 27 November 2012,  they revealed that targets for the first year target had not been met (DWP also released an accompanying document and the Employment Minister Mark Hoban issued a written statement to parliament).

In Edinburgh 6500 people went on the scheme in its first year but just 170 got permanent jobs. That’s a success (or failure) rate of less than 3 per cent. Across the UK it is just 2 per cent. The government said if there was no Work Programme then at least 5 in every 100 people would find jobs anyway. So the Coalition’s flagship work scheme is so bad they would have been as well doing nothing. I highlighted this in a story in the Edinburgh Evening News.

Early days, said Ministers, and anyway there had been some 200,000 job starts, conveniently announced by the ‘trade association’ for the providers. But why should we now suddenly be expected to believe such unverified data when we were told before how misleading that could be? I put this in a question to the Employment Minister Mark Hoban on 10 December 2012.

Then, following a question from my colleague Gemma Doyle to Prime Minister, where he referred to trade association figures again, I wrote to Mr Cameron to complain. Unfortunately he passed my letter back to DWP, and I got this response from Lord Freud

Since then Ministers have been trying to hide behind a letter from the UK Statistics Authority that suggests that this might not be the best measure upon which to judge the Work Programme’s performance (see Ian Duncan Smith in the Commons on 10 May 2013). While it may not be the best measure, it is still a measure worth considering, and more importantly it was the measure the Government chose when it launched the Work Programme in June 2011. Work Programme Provider Guidance explicitly states that ‘Performance will be measured by comparing job outcomes achieved with referrals in the same period.’ Ministers should not be trying to duck responsibility in this way.

So why is the Work Programme not working? I set out my views in an article in the Edinburgh Evening News on 1 December 2012 and spoke in a debate in the House of Commons.

For a start it’s the set up. I met a mother whose son had a nervous breakdown some years ago and had been jobless since. The Work Programme contractor got him to look for jobs on the internet. There was none of the tailored support ministers promised. Many MPs are picking up such disturbing examples of poor delivery at a local level.

The blame for this doesn’t only lie with contractors – it’s the government’s too. They set it up so payments arrive only once people have a job and contractors struggle to pay for resources they need.

Furthermore, although the Government is very keen to talk about how cheap its employability programme is, this another part of the problem. Although the spend on the programme is a huge overall, the amount being paid to contractors per sustained job outcome is actually relatively low. I put this point to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander in a question on 11 December 2012.

But more fundamentally, the Work Programme isn’t working because the economy isn’t working. David Cameron’s cuts choked off the recovery and sent the UK back into recession. Employability programmes do not create jobs and in many sectors of the economy there isn’t increased demand for more staff. The jobs are just not there for those on the scheme.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee, of which I am a member, is looking at whether the financial structure of the scheme is working and, in particular, how it is faring for people facing particular barriers to being employed.