Everyone who has been involved in the Work Programme has been warning ministers for some time that there were serious problems with this flagship policy. As this is the opposite of a listening government nobody took any notice. Big homelessness charities have warned that the system doesn’t work for people on the streets, small work creation charities like the one I run have seen a trickle of referrals from the ‘prime providers’ who won the contracts. Large employers are mystified by the plethora of organisations knocking on their doors offering to partner up on getting people back to work.
And now the first official statistics show that just three per cent of people going through the Work Programme are finding sustainable employment – i.e. remaining in work for six months. The most authoritative analysis comes from Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. This recognises that the model developed by Lord Freud for Iain Duncan Smith was designed for different economic times – in layman’s terms, the Work Programme would function a whole lot better if there were more jobs for people to go into. CESI’s analysis is scrupulously fair, but it is all the more devastating for that.
These figures are catastrophic for everyone involved. With the media in full navel-gazing mood in advance of Leveson, the figures have not received the publicity they might otherwise have done. But the hard truth is that the Work Programme figures seem to suggest that the new scheme may even have made things worse. The government’s own estimates suggest that around five per cent of people who are long-term unemployed would find work without any intervention. Iain Duncan Smith is a lucky man: no other Cabinet minister would survive such devastating statistics.
It’s easy to carp, especially when it is completely justified. But is there a way out of this appalling mess? As a critical friend, here are five suggestions:
1. The Work Programme figures coincided with the publication of the Richard Review of Apprenticeships. This proposes a radical rethink of the system giving more powers to employers to set apprenticeship standards. The government should embrace the report’s findings wholesale.
2. A complete overhaul of Jobcentres. The very institution designed to get people into work is no longer fit-for-purpose and needs a complete rethink. This is where welfare-to-work reform should have begun, but better late than never.
3. The new Employment Minister, Mark Hoban, has already begun to consult charities about their concerns. This needs to extend to making real changes to the Work Programme where it is seen to be failing.
4. Prime Contractors who are failing to deliver need to be removed from the Work Programme to show the government means what it says.
5. More coordination of local back-to-work initiatives and recognition that Labour’s Future Jobs Fund is now seen as a roaring success compared to the Work Programme.