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.

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted around 5,000) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.