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.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation