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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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