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, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the 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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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