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

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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