Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has struggled to implement his grand ideas
Show Hide image

Welfare-to-work firms are being paid five times over for a job half done

The coalition has struggled to implement its Work Programme. Labour needs to ensure its latest ideas don't go awry if they make it into government.

A report out this week has highlighted the problem with high-minded political reviews, like the one Labour published to much fanfare on Tuesday.

The National Audit Office, the apolitical body responsible for scrutinising government spending, has investigated the government’s Work Programme – its flagship scheme to help the unemployed into work.

It shows three things. First, it’s underperforming.

The government’s estimates have proved as over-optimistic as they appeared when the programme was launched in 2011. One of the most important measures of its success is how well it has helped the “hardest-to-help” into work.  If a claimant holds a job for at least three months they are deemed a success.

The government forecast more than 1 in 5 claimants would be helped back into work. The firms that won the contracts to help them were even more optimistic – suggesting nearly 1 in 4 would be successfully retrained.

Instead, just 1 in 9 of them have been. This is not surprising. It is in line with the success of comparable programs, such as Labour’s Flexible New Deal. The department, no longer buoyed by the grand promises of new governments, have belatedly reduced their expectations. They now expect around 1 in 8 to find work – half as many as the firms charged with delivering the contract pledged to achieve.

Despite this lack of success, these firms are now spending less than half as much as they committed to on the “hardest-to-help” job-seekers. They offered to spend £1,360 per person when they bid; they are now spending just £630.

One of the main reasons the firms have used to justify this – according to the NAO report – appears counter-intuitive:

“The introduction of participants that are further from employment has allowed greater use of group work or ‘lighter touch’, less frequent contact which can be more appropriate to their needs.”

You might have expected those struggling the most would be helped the most, with targeted one-to-one help and extra funding. Instead, it is those classified as “easier-to-help” who are actually receiving more money – nearly 40 per cent more. It seems the Work Programme has done little to change the culture of job centres under Labour, as documented in 2009 by Channel 4’s Benefit Busters.

At least, you might hope, these firms – who have retrained less than half as many of the hardest-to-help as they forecast, and are spending less than half as much on them as they agreed – would have faced the consequences of their failures.

But, as usual, they are still being well-paid – regardless of performance. They are entitled to £31m in incentive payments for 2014-15. The NAO estimate they would be paid £6m "using an accurate measure of performance".

Moreover, the difficulties of tracking how long workers keep their jobs has already cost the government £11m, and is set to cost it another £25m by 2016.

Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the parliamentary committee which takes up NAO reports, launched a familiar attack on the findings, arguing the government should be able to “force contractors to spend more" and stop paying "bonuses to all of its contractors despite their poor performance".

These are problems which her committee has been struggling against throughout this parliament – and which no government seems capable of solving.

They also show the limits of the grand policy announcements and thoughtful speeches currently exciting debate in Parliament. Without vision politics doesn’t inspire. Every political leader offers one – David Cameron ran on the ‘Big Society’ and Ed Miliband has called for ‘One Nation’. But without the ability to implement ideas, great plans often end up being little more than noble intentions.

The growth review published this week by the Labour Party was a thoughtful year-long study. The substance of its two dozen recommendations were scarcely criticised – although a key statistic was – and its calls for growth across the country echo George Osborne’s recent promise to create a ‘Northern powerhouse’.

It also talked specifically of the need to fix government contracting. But there is no simple solution. The Coalition has already tried to ensure more contracts go to small firms. The failures of the Work Programme show how much more there is to do.

Everyone wants the state to be become ‘smarter and more entrepreneurial’, ‘facilitate innovation’, and ‘radically improve’, as the review suggests. It offered engaging ideas – like more technical colleges and a ‘Teach Next’ scheme to complement the success of Teach First – but the question is how any government actually creates change.

The man behind the report, Andrew Adonis, has proved himself among the most capable operators in government – he spent a decade thinking up and driving through the academy system that now accounts for more than half of British schools.

We should react to his report by explaining how such ideas might be made possible – and learning from the perennial problems exposed by the committee who deal with government’s failures.

 

This is a preview of May2015.com, an affiliated site launching later this year. You can find us on Twitter.

 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation