The Work Programme is doomed to fail

The Work Programme – one year old this week – is the centrepiece of the government’s drive to ‘get Britain working’. But in the context of a stalled recovery and a return to recession, it is doomed to fail. The responsibility for this failure must land squarely with the Government whose economic illiteracy has landed us in this mess.

The idea was that the Work Programme would provide the long-term unemployed with the tailored support they needed to overcome their barriers and get into work.

There’s nothing essentially wrong with the ideas behind the Work Programme. Although presented as a revolution in support for the long-term unemployed, the Work Programme was in reality more of an evolution, building on the successes of the Labour government’s previous programmes.

But the programme is critically flawed. First it is chronically under-funded and based on spectacularly over-optimistic assumptions. Contracts were awarded based more on price than quality. Providers were driven to undercut each other in a viciously competitive bidding process. It led to a race to the bottom where the winners promised to deliver at costs everyone – including themselves – knew were impossible. DWP claimed that 40% of the largest group of job-seekers would be helped into work, a figure the National Audit Office recently estimated to be closer to 26%.

Providers whose bids were unrealistic from the start, will not be able to achieve their targets for getting people into work. This is a tragedy for the individuals concerned, but it also has serious consequences for the Work Programme itself. As providers are paid based on performance, a failure to meet their targets will put increasing financial pressure on them. Some have already withdrawn from the programme. More will follow this year.

As well as concerns over its viability, the Work Programme has been dogged by scandal. Take the major fraud case against A4E , or the ‘voluntary’ work experience scheme which didn’t seem all that voluntary, and most recently, the Jubilee stewarding scandal where work programme customers were abandoned under London Bridge at 3am in the cold and wet, before working a 14hr shift in the rain. All for free. Under the pressure for results and in the absence of adequate supervision, it is increasing clear that many providers are exploiting the people they are paid to help.

There is a sad inevitability about the Work Programmes failure. But it will fail not because of the flawed assumptions on which it was built, or because of the scandals which it attracts. No, there is a much bigger reason why it will fail; without growth the Work Programme will not work.

The Coalition inherited an economy that was troubled, but one that was growing, creating jobs and in which unemployment had begun to fall. The Government promised that by slashing the deficit, they would give the private sector space to grow. Unemployment, they claimed, would fall every year of this parliament.

Instead of sustaining, strengthening and speeding the recovery, the Government’s ideologically driven cuts have forced the economy back into a double dip recession. In this context, the Work Programme cannot and will not work.

Helping the long-term unemployed into work is hard at the best of times. In a recession, this becomes much, much more difficult. When there are dozens of people going for each vacancy, including highly motivated people with recent experience, with skills and with qualifications, it is nigh-on impossible.

For all the good points of the Work Programme, for all its innovation, it will fail. There is nothing to celebrate in this for Labour. The failure of the Work Programme means millions of unemployed people will not be helped into work. Their lives will continue to be blighted by poverty and stigma. And it will be our areas that are hit hardest; of the 12 constituencies with the highest unemployment in Britain, all 12 are Labour. Of the 12 with the lowest unemployment, 8 are Tory. Only a party whose power base is in the wealthy rural shires and suburbs could see unemployment as ‘a price worth paying’.

The Governments economic illiteracy demonstrated in their catastrophic handling of the recovery has doomed one of its flagship programmes. Without growth and without jobs, the Work Programme will not work. And we all know who is to blame for this.

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