The coalition's work programme is failing the unemployed

While long-term unemployment has soared, referrals to the Work Programme have halved.

Whatever explains the recent fall in unemployment, one thing became clear yesterday. It’s nothing to do with the government. New figures on the Department for Work and Pensions' troubled Work Programme revealed that JobCentre Plus is losing all confidence in the scheme as referrals to the programme have fallen off a cliff.

In July last year, nearly 100,000 people were referred on to the Work Programme: that has since halved to 49,000 in July this year. Long-term unemployment has increased by 188,000 over the same period – so if anything, more people should be being referred on to the Work Programme in each successive month. The government’s flagship back to work scheme is now in total gridlock – just when we need it the most.  Even by the DWP’s own standards, the over 25s and disabled people are being failed – referrals are well below the DWP’s most recent projections.

Disabled people’s right to work is now being systematically destroyed by the Coalition. The Work Programme’s failure is starkest for disabled people seeking work. On average, about 5,600 people claiming Employment and Support Allowance were referred on to the Work Programme. That is less than half of the DWP’s projection of 13,000 a month. After shutting 36 Remploy factories and putting over 1,000 workers out of their jobs, the government has managed to get the grand total of just 36 back into work. Disgraceful.

A hint of good news here or there, while welcome, cannot and should not disguise the bald truth that the jobs figures show a deeply divided country. Unemployment is higher than it was at the time of the election in nine out of twelve regions in the UK. Those out of jobs are increasingly shut out: a third of the total employed have been unemployed for more than a year. And those in jobs are increasingly insecure: our appalling economic situation means that employers just aren’t in a position to offer secure jobs. Just under half of the increase in employment since the election is due to an increase in part-time jobs. 1.4m people are now forced to work part-time because there are no full-time jobs available.

This tragedy has three big long term consequences for the country. First, thousands of our young people may be consigned to careers that are haphazard and poorly paid for years. As the ACEVO Commission on youth unemployment pointed out, long-term youth unemployment scars for life – through lower earnings, higher unemployment, and ill health. The Commission calculated that these scarring effects will cost the exchequer £2.9bn per year; and the economy will lose a further £6.3bn per year through lost output.

Second, Britain's productivity figures are now in awful shape. According to House of Commons Library calculations, productivity fell by 0.2 per cent in 2011 in the UK compared with the previous year, while it increased by 1.7 per cent in Germany, and 1.2 per cent in the US.  We are employing more people to produce less. If this becomes a permanent feature of the economy, it will hobble us for years by damaging our long-term growth and our export prospects.

Third, the coalition's jobs failure is making it much harder to hit the debt targets. The coalition has now trapped us in a vicious circle where their failure to create jobs and growth has led to rising welfare bills and a fall in tax revenues. The deficit is up by more than a quarter compared to the same period last year and the welfare bill has soared by a staggering £9bn. Without jobs and growth you can't get the deficit down.

Once upon a time David Cameron promised us the biggest back-to-work programme the country had ever seen. That's yet another promise that's turned to ash. And we'll be paying the price of the coalition's jobs failure for years to come.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.