Is Chris Grayling running scared of Margaret Hodge?

Justice Secretary accuses the chair of the Public Accounts Committee of "political grandstanding" after her committee described the performance of the Work Programme as "extremely poor".

Margaret Hodge, the redoubtable chair of the Public Accounts Committee, appears to have touched a nerve. In an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Pienaar's Politics last night, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, accused the Labour MP of "political grandstanding" and of failing to take "a proper and dispassionate view of her job".

It's unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, to hear such strident criticism of a select committee chair from a minister, so what could have provoked Grayling's ire? The answer is last month's Public Accounts Committee report on the Work Programme, for which he was responsible while employment minister. The scheme's performance was described by the committee (which has a Conservative majority) as "extremely poor", with only 3.6 per cent of claimants moved off benefits and into sustained employment. 

This success rate was less than a third of the DWP target of 11.9 per cent and even below the official estimate of what would have happened if the programme had never existed, prompting the famous claim that it was "worse than doing nothing". Not one of the 18 providers, such as A4e, Ingeus, REED and G4S, managed to meet its minimum performance targets, with the best provider moving five per cent of claimants into work and the worst moving just two per cent. 

And it is those most in need of help who are failing to get it. As Hodge noted, "of the 9,500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to providers, only 20 people have been placed in a job that has lasted three months, while the poorest performing provider did not manage to place a single person in the under 25 category into a job lasting six months." Given the extent of the failure, Grayling was warned that there is a high risk of one or more of the providers going bust, or having its contract cancelled. "The Department must identify cases where a provider is at risk of failing and ensure there are specific plans in place to deal with this," the MPs said. 

Confronted by these uncomfortable truths, it's unsurprising that Grayling feels the need to lash out. But his discomfort is merely evidence that Hodge is doing her job: holding the executive to account for their use of taxpayers' money. While Grayling claims that the scheme, which pays providers by results, represents better value for money than the last government's Future Jobs Fund, this claim rests on a generous interpretation of the data. 

Ministers boast that the cost of every job secured under the Work Programme is just over £2,000, compared with a cost of almost £7,500 under Labour's scheme. But as Alex has previously noted, this takes no account of the fact that had the programme not existed, there would have been an extra 14,000 jobs created. As he concluded after crunching the numbers, "the Work Programme did not cost £2,000 per job. Instead, for every £4,600 it spent, it destroyed one participant's chance of employment."

The government points out that the orginal performance targets were set when growth was expected to be significantly higher than it is now. But given that the IMF, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and others argue that the excessive pace of austerity is at least partly to blame for this, it's not clear why it regards this a legitimate excuse.

Rather than impugning Hodge's integrity, Grayling would do better to develop a Work Programme that actually works. 

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking and the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.