The Work Programme is a policy out of its economic depth

A decent idea born at a time when the jobs were there produces perverse results when they are not.

The Work Programme, the government’s vast welfare-to-work scheme, was supposed to be an engine of good news. It has been cited on a number of occasions by David Cameron as the shining example of radical innovation in a notoriously difficult area of policy and a firm rebuttal to the Labour charge that the government is somehow complacent about unemployment.

Billions of pounds are being made available in contracts to private and voluntary sector organisations in exchange for their expertise in placing benefit claimants in work.

Crucially, the service providers are paid by results – meaning, after a small “attachment fee”, they only get their money when their clients have jobs. People deemed harder to employ – generally those who have been out of work for longer – carry a premium. This is supposed to act as an incentive for providers to concentrate their efforts on the stubborn cohort of the long-term unemployed.  (A weakness in predecessor programmes was deemed to be that providers got paid for finding jobs for people who would have found them anyway and ignoring those who most needed help – the practice known in the industry as “parking and creaming”.)

A second aspect of the Work Programme deemed vital by government and providers is the “black box” approach. This means, in essence, that the Department for Work and Pensions won’t dictate the methods used to place people in work. Providers are meant to innovate and compete. The better formulae – the devices contained in the black box – will, in theory, succeed and their designers can then get more work and make more money. Naturally, the DWP does not (knowingly) tolerate cruel, illegal or fraudulent methods in the black box. The system is meant to drive imaginative, local solutions to a famously intractable problem.

As a theory it could all sound rather splendid: harness market forces alongside the noble ethos of the voluntary sector, underwritten by the DWP budget, to get the long-term unemployed back to work. The practice is proving tricky for a number of reasons. One is that lines of accountability are hard to police in a vast inter-locking network of different providers operating in different regions. This flaw has been exposed in the case of Jubilee crowd stewards allegedly being asked to sleep under London Bridge – and foregoing wages – in order to gain experience of crowd management. The chain of command from the DWP to a prime provider to a secondary provider to an actual employer means it is hard to say what the case actually expresses about the policy. Whose bad decision was it and to what degree does that express a systemic flaw? 

The same issue is raised by recent allegations of fraud at A4e, once a major beneficiary of DWP contracts, although it must be pointed out that the accusations relate to bits of A4e’s past practice and not its Work Programme activity. The point is that a private company, doing work on behalf of the government, is accused of wrongdoing. Had the whole thing been run in-house at the DWP, a minister would be called to answer for it. Now there is a danger of accountability leaking through the gaps.

But by far the biggest problem is the labour market itself. As I have noted before, the Work Programme was designed, and its funding arrangements set, with an eye to fiscal and labour market forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). These forecasts have all subsequently been revised in a more pessimistic direction. Even before the revisions, many observers and industry insiders expressed concern that the funding model was unrealistic.

An important reservation was that small providers – the ones most likely to actually innovate and know the job market terrain in which they work – could never manage with the kind of cash flow constraints that the DWP insisted on when negotiating contracts. So a handful of giant companies got the prime contracting work and then sub-contracted out the actual business of placing people in jobs – and the financial risk -  to smaller players, often charities. At least one charity has pulled out. Others are rumoured to be on the brink.

A good account of the flaws in the model, based on past records of non-state providers meeting their targets for getting people into work, was published by the Social Market Foundation in August 2011.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the Work Programme was conceived at a time when the main problem with unemployment was thought to be difficulty in matching people to jobs, training them and motivating them to take what was on offer. Those are still issues in some areas and some cases, but much deeper structural problems with the labour market are now apparent. So too are regional variations that mean there simply aren’t vacancies to be filled.

But the feature of the labour market that seems to be causing most problems for the image of the government policy is the decline in decently-paid low- and semi-skilled jobs alongside a vast expansion of unpaid work in the guise of “experience” and “internships”. This too was the defining feature of the Jubilee steward story. For the employer (and presumably the Work Programme provider) it seemed quite reasonable to offer unpaid work as a precursor to paid work. This is well-established in the jargon as one of the “pathways” back to labour market participation. But that concept relies on the assumption that people need coaxing off a cosy life on benefits. Many are far more preoccupied by the urgent need for wages.

This too was the problem with the government-sponsored work experience scheme (not the same as the Work Programme) that caused a minor scandal last year. Companies were accused of employing “slave labour” – welfare-claimants who were given to understand that their benefits would be docked if they didn’t show up. The DWP vehemently denied that such a sanction was official policy.

Defenders of the policy argued then too that “work experience” was an essential staging post on the route back to actual work. Opponents pointed out (amid more lurid claims) that the scheme was essentially providing a taxpayer subsidy for the companies that would otherwise have had to recruit people to stack shelves etc. and pay them. The government’s welfare-to-work policies are meant to match people with actual vacancies, but in the absence of demand from employers they are creating perverse incentives for people to work without wages.

It is important to disentangle two things. On one hand, there is the original ethos of a policy that emerged from many years of frustration with government’s constant inability to find work for people who were claiming benefits even when the economy was growing and, by many measures, there were jobs to be had. Second, there is long-term downward pressure on wages at the bottom end of the labour market, compounded by stagnation, a global shortage of demand, low investment, public sector cuts and only modest private sector job creation. In such conditions, the best welfare-to-work policy conceivable would run into difficulty. No wonder the Work Programme, very far from perfect, is in trouble. But even if it fails in a downturn, something very much like it will still end up being re-invented for the recovery.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage