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

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland