The Work Programme flounders

Iain Duncan Smith to set up review as £5bn scheme fails to help those most in need.

Iain Duncan Smith’s pledge to “make work pay” is a laudable aim that no-one would argue with. The reality, however, has been somewhat more difficult, and the Times (£) reports today that Duncan Smith is setting up a review into the Work Programme, after the £5bn programme failed to get enough long-term sick and disabled people into work.

Under the scheme, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) pays private companies to help get the long-term unemployed into sustainable jobs. Launched in June 2011, it replaced virtually all welfare-to-work programmes run by the department and was expected to help up to 3.3 million people back into work over five years. The contracts were “payment by results”, which transfers the financial risk away from government and onto providers.

The downside of this is that, according to the Times report, the numbers are not adding up for the 18 prime contractors involved in the scheme. Duncan Smith originally told the companies that around 30 per cent of referrals would be people claiming incapacity benefit or its replacement, employment support allowance. Companies stand to gain up to £13,800 for each person in this category who they place in a job. However, in the nine months since the programme launched, just seven per cent have actually been in this category, while the rest have been on jobseeker’s allowance. Finding employment for people on jobseeker’s allowance is worth only £3,800 to the companies. Some companies are losing hundreds of thousands of pounds because of this miscalculation.

So why isn’t it working? The Times piece cites poor IT systems, the failure of Jobcentres to refer people, and appeals against medical assessments. But these administrative issues are not the root cause; indeed, serious doubts were raised months ago about whether targets would be met. There is a very simple reason for this: if there aren’t enough vacancies to fill, the whole plan falls apart. The scheme was designed at a time when DWP expected the labour market to follow the Office for Budget Responsibility’s optimistic growth forecasts. (Needless to say, it didn’t).

The numbers simply don’t add up. As our economics editor David Blanchflower wrote in June 2011, as the scheme launched:

They promise that the programme will give 2.4 million unemployed people help to find jobs over the next five years, which seems unlikely, given that there are so few jobs available. At present, there are 2.43 million people who are unemployed and a further 2.4 million who are out of the labour force - those who are neither employed nor unemployed but want a job. The Office for National Statistics reported that, on average, there were only 469,000 vacancies available from February to April, which implies only one vacancy for every ten jobseekers. The number of jobseekers per vacancy is likely to be much higher in areas of high unemployment. There remains no evidence that the private sector will deliver the large numbers of jobs the coalition is hoping for.

The employment crisis has hardly receded since then. As more and more people face having their benefits stripped away, this highlights the fact that in this climate, there are frequently few other options.

Incidentally, the Labour government’s Pathway to Work plan was a pilot scheme which used the private sector to help incapacity benefit claimants back into work. Then, too, they failed to meet their performance targets, and were often worse than the Jobcentre. Clearly, the lessons were not learnt, as several organisations named as serious underperformers won contracts under the Work Programme.

It is no surprise that the programme is floundering; solutions, however, are harder to identify.
 

People protest against cuts to disability allowances, London, May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.