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

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.