The government's work programme doesn't look well administered

An underspend isn't always good news.

Tony Wilson, policy director at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, reports that the Work Programme, the controversial government scheme which pays outsourcing firms to get long-term unemployed people back in work, has come in £225m under budget. The Youth Contract, a related programme which focuses on young unemployed people, came in £300m under budget.

 

 

 

 

That sounds good – and likely will be spun as good by the government, when the time comes to release the figures – but it's actually yet more evidence of the mismanagement of the entire scheme. The Guardian reports on the public accounts committee's analysis of the programmes:

The report said that providers complained they "did not have the funding to provide the level of support they wanted". It added: "Particular issues reported as resulting from a lack of funding included an inability to pay for interpreters and for participant transport in rural areas. Some subcontractors felt this also had an impact on their ability to meet the needs of particular groups of participants."

Another provider said that due to the high numbers of unemployed people needing help too often "support was provided online or in group sessions, with one-to-one support used only where necessary".

When a programme is being condemned for a lack of funding at the same time as not even spending the budget it's been given, it's hard to imagine it's being particularly well administered. Of course, given that against the best counterfactuals, it looks like the work programme is less effective than doing nothing at all, that shouldn't be a huge surprise.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.