Will the Work Programme work?

Some key background reading to understand the debate on welfare reform.

Liam Byrne, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has successfully created a bit of a stir with his intervention on welfare reform in Monday's Guardian. There is more planned, with speeches on the subject over the next few months. 2012, I'm told, is meant to be the year that Labour gets back into the conversation about welfare reform. Since the election, the terms of debate have been effectively set by the Tories. Public opinion remains steady in support of cuts to the benefits bill, with a widespread perception that the last government lost control of spending and was relaxed about people choosing to live on the dole. Iain Duncan Smith's popular promise to reform the system to "make work pay" has, senior Labour figures privately concede, effectively shut the opposition out.

Whether Ed Miliband can get back in is the subject of my column in this week's magazine. One key factor will be the question of whether the government's welfare plans will actually work. There is already a lot of disquiet around the Work Programme, the huge welfare-to-work scheme under which private and voluntary sector providers compete for contracts to place the long-term unemployed in work. The contractors are paid according to how effective they are in matching their "customers" with jobs. As I write in the column, the whole thing starts to break down if there simply aren't enough vacancies around to fill. The scheme was designed at a time when the Department for Work and Pensions expected the labour market to track optimistic growth forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR turned out to be wrong, of course.

But even if vacancies are there for some of the people being transferred onto the Work Programme, there are serious doubts being raised in the welfare-to-work sector about whether some of the providers will be able to meet their targets. There is also a lot of suspicion around that some of the providers won their contracts with unrealistic estimates of how much it actually costs to train someone who has been out of work for a year and find them a job. There are some rumbling noises around about the Work Programme either collapsing or, more likely, needing to be bailed out by government.

For anyone interested in welfare-to-work policy detail, I recommend the following links:

Public Accounts Committee report on "Pathways to Work"

This is a parliamentary investigation into a pilot scheme set up under Labour to use the private sector to help claimants of incapacity benefit back into work. Mostly they failed to meet their performance targets and generally performed worse than the Job Centre. A number of organisations named as serious under-performers in the report won contracts under the Work Programme.

The Social Market Foundation report: Will the Work Programme Work?

The think tank that pioneered payment by results as a mechanism for improving delivery of welfare-to-work programmes questions whether its ideas have been implemented in a way that is likely to get the desired outcomes. (Answer: no.)

BBC Radio 4: The Report - The Work Programme

Almost everything you need to know about welfare-to-work schemes in one handy half-hour radio documentary.

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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.