Is the DWP preparing to bury bad news on the Work Programme?

A leaked letter from Mark Hoban to Coalition MPs tries to move the goalposts ahead of performance data being published.

Headline unemployment numbers have been falling in recent months, giving the coalition cause for cautious cheer. Tory MPs are still wary of formally declaring the economy redeemed from disaster but they have at least some evidence to suggest it is on the right track.

The Labour rebuttal is that the pace of job creation is slowing and that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high. (This is a tricky area for the opposition, which is always in danger of looking disappointed by good news and, in the quest for political vindication, celebrating misery.)

A big policy question in this area is the performance of the Work Programme, the government’s vast welfare-to-work scheme that pays private and voluntary sector organisations to place people in work. The scheme has been advertised by ministers as a miracle cure to the problem of long-term joblessness and an antidote to Labour’s failure to tackle the issue. Those who work with the Department for Work and Pensions as part of the Programme or in the welfare-to-work sector are less optimistic. They warn that the labour market conditions are not good enough to make the experiment work and that the cash premium for the "hard to place" benefit claimants – those deemed to face the highest barriers to finding work – are not high enough to make the ‘payment by results’ system work. (I wrote a longer analysis of problems with the Work Programme a few months ago here.)

It has been hard to judge the effectiveness of the policy because the DWP has prevented providers from publishing their data on how many people have actually been placed in work. We have had data on the number of people referred to the Work Programme which suggest that not enough of the long-term unemployed are even getting help through the scheme. What he haven’t seen – because ministers have continually delayed publication – is how many people have actually been found jobs and how many are staying in work long enough to trigger the payments on which the providers depend if they are not to go bust. In other words, we have yet to get a clear sense of whether the Work Programme is actually working.

That wait comes to an end tomorrow, when, at last, the DWP will publish the numbers. There are hints already that they won’t be encouraging. I have a copy of a letter (see scan below) from Employment Minister Mark Hoban notifying coalition MPs of the forthcoming data publication. He appears to hose down expectations, writing:

“As the Work Programme supports people for two years or more, it is too early to judge Work Programme performance by Job Outcome and Sustainment Payment data alone.”

That sounds like a pre-emptive admission of failure. Job Outcome data are the proof that people are being placed in work and Sustainment Payment data are evidence of sustainable income for providers. So if “payment by results” is working those are the measures that matter and it is pretty disingenuous for a minister to suggest they aren’t the real story.

Hoban goes on:

“To better explain Work Programme preferences so far, I will also be releasing a number of ad hoc statistics which show how the programme is moving people off benefits  and compare what we have spent on the programme with the cost of the previous employment programme, Flexible new Deal. ERSA, the providers’ trade organisation, will also publish information on how the programme is helping people move into jobs.”

The simultaneous publication of “ad hoc statistics” relating to Labour’s Flexible New Deal (FND) – a primitive version of the Work Programme introduced by the last government - looks like a device to muddy the waters by trying to frame the success of the Work Programme in terms of its cost-effectiveness rather than its impact on long-term unemployment . The FND cost analysis has already been published by DWP here (pdf) so the only new element would be some spin of the numbers to show that coalition policy is doing something similar but cheaper. Even if that is the case it still doesn’t prove that the Work Programme is sustainable or doing what it was advertised to do.

A big data dump is also a classic technique to bury bad news. The letter concludes:

“The Work Programme is designed to be a major improvement to welfare to work support, my goal is to drive forward its effective implementation. I hope you will join me in supporting the programme on the day.”

A major improvement in welfare to work support? When it was launched it was “a revolution in back to work support” helping "millions of people".

It sounds as if expectations are being managed aggressively downward. Maybe I am wrong about this. Perhaps tomorrow’s numbers will show tremendous success in the placement of long-term unemployed people in jobs and a healthy cash flow to Work Programme providers proving that this flagship policy is running like a well-oiled machine. But the tone of Mark Hoban’s letter and the clear intention to camouflage the story suggest otherwise.

Update: Someone with a better knowledge of the Work Programme than me has pointed out another little bit of potential subterfuge. The letter refers to performance data from June 2011 to July 2012, whereas the DWP's own standards for minimum performance are supposed to be measured according to results achieved in a calendar year - so the period that counts for judging whether the programme is working would be June 2011 - May 2012. Of course, if you count a year as 13 or 14 months you can squeeze in a few more job placements and claim the system is closer to meeting the required targets ...

Employment Minister Mark Hoban. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide