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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.