The Work Programme destroyed a job for every £4600 it spent

Not a paragon of efficiency.

The government is now trying to spin the Work Programme figures, as expected, by focusing on the initiative's "cost effectiveness". The BBC's Nick Robinson, for instance, writes:

Ministers claim that they are meeting their "off benefit targets" and that they are saving money too. The cost of every job secured under their Work Programme is, they say, just over £2,000 compared with a cost of almost £7,500 under Labour's [Flexible] New Deal because the contractors are only paid 60% of their fee once someone is in a sustainable job: ie for six months.

It's certainly the case that Labour's programmes were more expensive than the coalition's replacements. But what this spin demonstrates is a serious failure to control for background noise. The Work Programme is, so far, worse than nothing at ensuring "job outcomes" – that is, people in unsubsidised work six months after they leave the programme. In the first fourteen months, 3.5 per cent of participants achieved job outcomes, but for people not on the programme, 5 per cent were expected to get jobs, according to Labour's shadow minister Liam Byrne.

(The news shouldn't be hugely surprising – one very effective way to get a job is to spend all day every day applying for jobs. Any training programme has to overcome that hurdle.)

Some quick back of the envelope maths, here. The full data is simply not available, but if ministers are saying that the Work Programme cost £2000 per job, and we know that there have been 32,310 job outcomes, then presumably they are claiming a budget to date of £65m.

Given that 5 per cent background rate, we can expect that if the Work Programme had never been instituted, there would have been 46,000 jobs in the normal process: 14,000 more.

In other words, the Work Programme did not cost £2000 per job. Instead, for every £4,600 it spent, it destroyed one participant's chance of employment.

Updated: The effect of the work programme was on the 14,000 job difference, and so the effect is one job destroyed for every £4,600, not for every £1,400. 3.5 per cent is the result for the first fourteen months, not the first year. Clarified the source of the 5 per cent figure.

Men at work. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.