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.