People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The coalition's "Help to Work" won't help the jobless

The DWP's own study found that forcing claimants to do community work or attend daily jobcentre meetings made almost no difference to employment levels. 

When George Osborne announced the government's new "Help to Work" programme, which launches today, at the Conservative conference last year, he declared: "We are saying there is no option of doing nothing for your benefits, no something-for-nothing any more." It was the language of retribution.

From now on, those claimants (sotto voce: "scroungers") who have been on the Work Programme for more than two years and have failed to find a job, will be required to either attend daily meetings with jobcentre advisers, carry out community work ( such as making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity) for six months without pay, or undergo an "intensive regime of support" to address underlying problems such as drug addiction and illiteracy. Those who refuse will have their benefits docked for four weeks. 

Despite Osborne's "something-for-nothing" rhetoric, employment minister Esther McVey insisted on the Today programme this morning that the scheme was not about "punishment" but about "getting people into work and fulfilling their potential". Yet even if we take her rhetoric at face value, how helpful is Help to Work likely to be? Judging by the DWP's pilot (the results of which, as Jonathan Portes notes, it has avoided publicising), the answer is "not very".  

The department took 15,000 claimants and placed them in either the jobcentre programme, the community work scheme, or a control group. At the end of the pilot, it found that the same number in the control group (18 per cent) found employment as those doing workfare and that just 1 per cent more of those receiving jobcentre support did. In other words, Help to Work made almost no difference. Yet despite this, the government has proceeded to extend the £300m programme nationwide without any cost-benefit analysis. It is another triumph of politics over policy. 

Thirty voluntary sector organisations, including Oxfam and the Salvation Army, have rightly opted not to participate in the scheme and have responded by launching a new campaign to Keep Volunteering Voluntary. "Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution," they warn. "We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes."

Labour has responded by reminding voters of its Compulsory Jobs Guarantee scheme, which would offer every young person out of work for more than 12 months and every adult (aged over 25) out of work for more than two years a paid job, and its plan to offer training to those without basic maths, English and IT skills. As I've noted before, nearly one in ten people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance lack basic literacy skills, while more than one in ten lack basic numeracy skills (making them twice as likely as those in work to not have these skills). Half are unable to complete basic word processing and spreadsheet tasks and nearly half lack basic emails skills. Government research found that a third of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance had claimed the benefit at least three times before and that nearly 20 per cent of those with repeat claims had problems with literacy or numeracy.

A combination of guaranteed paid work and basic skills training is the best way to address the human waste of long-term unemployment. But for an enlightened and evidence-based approach, don't look to Osborne and co. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.