Work Programme providers plead poverty

Don't hate the small charity players, hate the large corporate game.

The Guardian has a slightly strange write-up of a piece of research around the government's flagship Work Programme, which is aimed at getting long-term unemployed people back into work (although the initial statistics imply it is less than efficient at doing so). The programme is structured in a "black box" manner; providers are entitled to, within reason, offer whichever schemes they think will work best to participants, and are paid by result.

But, Patrick Butler writes:

Welfare firms are involved in widespread "gaming" of the Work Programme, with the most vulnerable jobseekers often ignored because they are too costly to help, according to new research into how the government's flagship employment initiative is working in practice.
Providers privately admit they are focusing resources on the "easy customers" who are more likely to generate a fee, and sidelining jobless clients who require more time and investment to become ready for work, a process known as "creaming and parking," the study says.
It concludes that the quality of services offered to jobseekers is being undermined because the design of the Work Programme, in which companies are not paid until customers have been in work for two years, creates such huge financial stresses that many providers have little option but to cut corners.

The last paragraph is not strictly true. Providers are paid periodically throughout the two years that participants are said to be active. They receive a referral fee when an unemployed person arrives on their books, and then further payments when they find that person work, and periodically while that person is in work up to the two year deadline, when they are deemed to be back in stable employment.

The most obvious way of gaming that system is indeed relatively frequent: taking the referral fee for a new "customer", and then proceeding to ignore them entirely. Since there is not a huge amount of variation in the fees depending on how difficult it might be to find work, that usually results in people who are scarred from the effects of long-term unemployment being taken into the programme and left languishing while their referral fees are used to subsidise training for more easy-to-help participants.

That wheeze is likely to be short lived, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it won't result in many people actually getting work, and so the workfare provider's overall statistics will look terrible. If the government has a modicum of competency, that will be taken into account when the next contracts go out.

Competency, of course, is not guaranteed, but luckily the referral fees were only ever intended to be short term. They are important to getting the scheme going, but the intention is that the training for one cohort of jobseekers should be paid for, not with the referral fees, but with the profit from the previous cohort. That way, the system is true payment by results: if you don't find someone a job, you don't get anything.

The gaming Butler describes is a different sort. The black-box model the Programme runs on allows providers to subcontract work; and that seems to be where the trouble is starting:

The study cites a small private-sector provider which complained that big corporate providers, known as "primes", would keep "job-ready" customers for themselves while passing on more difficult cases to subcontractors. "It's not being PC but I'll just say it as it is … you tend to get left with the rubbish; people who aren't going to get a job … If the [prime] thought they could get them a job, they wouldn't [refer them to] someone else to get a job."

That doesn't seem to be symptomatic of anything other than bad business on the part of the small private-sector provider. There's nothing making them subcontract with the big corporate providers. Presumably they thought they could make a profit. The fact that they can't on the terms they'd agreed just means they should draw up a better contract.

Just as we can hope the government will take performance into account when offering the next set of Work Programme contracts, the best situation for the subcontractors is to stop taking work from corporate providers who offer them bad terms. That is, after all, how capitalism works.

Not that it has to be that way. Not all of the workfare providers view their job as purely extracting profit from a badly designed system, and at least one major one largely foreswears the possibility of boosting income by gaming it. Unsurprisingly, it is not one of the providers backed by private equity.

The Work Programme is frequently poorly designed, and many — but not every — provider is out to milk it for all it's worth. But the problem with it isn't that there is isn't enough money floating in the system.

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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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