People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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