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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.