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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.