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

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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