The long road from welfare to work

Will the government’s proposals to change the way training providers are paid really help solve the

In one of the upstairs rooms at the Rathbone training organisation's facilities in Oldham, Greater Manchester, Josh Duffy is leaning back on a chair that is too small and totting up the organisations that have tried to help him get a job. Rathbone is the sixth training provider with which Josh, who's just become a dad, has had contact since leaving school two years ago.

We count them up: first, there was North Lancs Training, where he studied construction. He left to go to Oldham College, where he was enrolled on a Level 1 bricklaying course. Then, after he decided that wasn't for him, a company called Work Solutions provided him with a mentor and some help writing a CV. "I didn't see them often. I didn't have much chance of getting a job. I was young and I had no experience," Josh explains.

After about six months without progress, he applied for plumbing. But that was with a private training provider and Josh couldn't afford the £2,500 fee. Next, he embarked on an "entry to employment" course with the YMCA. After eight weeks there, things seemed to be looking up. He had certificates in first aid, manual handling and safety, and the YMCA had moved him on to something called a "foundation modern apprenticeship" in retail, with a placement at an Ethel Austin clothing store. A couple of months down the line, he was told there wasn't any prospect of a job – the chain was cutting the hours of permanent staff and later went into administration.

So, Josh washed up at the door of Rathbone, which found him a work placement at a local store called B&M Bargains. Despite his ropey training history, the charity was prepared to give him a go, secure in the knowledge that it would be paid for its work. In future, it might have to think harder about doing this. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, proposes that organisations delivering his welfare-to-work programme should be paid by results. That, according to Paul Fletcher, Rathbone's director of youth engagement, will leave them with tough decisions to make about whether to carry on doing what they do best – taking the most disaffected young people off the streets and setting them on their feet – or to focus on the easy-to-help and a healthy bank balance. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with payment by results, he tells me, it's just that it doesn't seem to have been adequately thought through.

“Principles are good, but the consequences for the financial balance sheet can be messy," Fletcher concedes. "The big question for organisations like ours is: do we start to be more selective and drive our performance in terms of who we are going to get paid for, or do we stick with our mission and risk not actually getting paid? The way a lot of providers will respond is by being selective at the front door. That means the most vulnerable and the most marginalised could end up going underground, losing their benefits and going into the black economy."

Revolving door

Duncan Smith's proposals are an extension of rules that began to be implemented under the last government. Under Labour's Flexible New Deal, providers were paid 20 per cent of their fee – typically about £1,400 in total – upfront, 30 per cent when clients had found a job and stuck at it for three months, and the rest after they'd been working six months. Now, it's likely that the full payment will not come in until they have stuck with a job for a year.

In some ways, what is happening is a fundamental shift in the way we deal with the young unemployed. Previously, the critical target of government programmes was to get people off the books of organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, so the end result was less important.

Julie Bird, the Rathbone tutor who brought Josh to the centre, sums up the old approach: "Everybody has targets to meet and as long as [the clients] are in some kind of training, it makes the statistics look good." The problem with this, she explains, is that these programmes become an end in themselves. Lots of people, like Josh, end up in a kind of revolving door, spat out by one provider, then sucked in by another. "There's quite a few in that situation," Bird says. "There's not always a guaranteed job at the end of it. Once the young person's off that book, there's no follow-up."

So well recognised is this phenomenon that there's even a word for it in the trade – "churn". There is no requirement for training organisations to monitor how many times their recruits have been around the course before, so there are no statistics to back up the sense that these short-term fixes haven't been working. Yet a major study on disengaged youth published in 2008 by the Nuffield Foundation and Rathbone estimated that four out of ten young people who were out of work were caught in a repeating cycle of short-term courses, casual employment and joblessness.

Rebuilding walls

Duncan Smith's payment-by-results plan is designed to deal with this. The question for the new government will be whether, by such a simple expedient as not paying the providers of back-to-work schemes until they deliver long-term results, it can reverse decades of labour-market casualisation and even the age-old tendency of the young to drift from one job, or one course, to another.

With youth unemployment hovering at the one million mark, and reports that there will be 70 applications for every graduate job this year, the issue looks unlikely to go away in the near future.

Fletcher has a different solution, which is gaining currency among many of those who work with the young unemployed. We should, he says, return to the glory days of Margaret Thatcher's Youth Training Scheme (YTS). One of Fletcher's first jobs was running such a scheme. "We rebuilt people's garden walls with old tradesmen passing on their skills, so there was job satisfaction and understanding," he says. "The key thing is, it's got to be perceived as real. At the time, I thought it was just OK, but with hindsight it was a good scheme."

YTS, he points out, was a 12-month placement – later extended to two years – with a non-means-tested allowance of around £30 a week – the same as today's education maintenance allowance, and in real terms about three times as high. Most of the participants progressed into real jobs.

Josh, after many false starts, has almost managed to do the same. He's just been told B&M Bargains is prepared to take him on as an apprentice. He talks with enthusiasm about his workplace, where he has been getting a £30 allowance for a 30-hour week since last November. "I'm looking after the furniture department. I build displays and do merchandising. It's great – I like hands-on work," he explains. As an apprentice, he'll still be on a low wage: "It's rubbish, but it's got to be done," he says, cheerfully. For him, finally, there should be a happy ending. It is much less clear how the legions of similarly unlucky or confused young people will fare under the new system.

The lost generation

Unemployment rose from 1.3 million to more than 3.4 million during Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Families were hardest hit in Northern Ireland, where unemployment reached 20 per cent, and in Scotland and the north-east, where the jobless rate was roughly 15 per cent.

In response to the persistently high rates of youth unemployment, Thatcher founded the Youth Training Scheme, a programme offering on-the-job training to 16- and 17-year-olds. The scheme was praised by some as an effective replacement for apprenticeships, but others argued that it enabled employers to exploit school leavers as cheap labour.

Many historians view the rise in unemployment as a regrettable but necessary consequence of the Tories' economic policies. Others, however, contend that the Thatcher government deliberately raised unemployment in order to destroy trade union militancy. Sir Alan Budd, who recently resigned as head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said in 1992: "Raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes, if you like . . . What was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism, which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since."

George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496