Bad management and cruelty: Iain Duncan Smith and the failures of the Work Programme

A toxic mixture of policy by soundbite, twisted statistics and a spurious belief in the efficacy of the private sector has created a programme that is going to fail a whole generation.

Earlier this year, Cait Reilly, a 24-year-old Geology graduate, won a legal battle at the Appeal Court after claiming that her unpaid work placement at Poundland, which she had been required to undertake in return for continued benefits payments, breached laws on forced labour.

Iain Duncan Smith vented his frustration on The Andrew Marr Show:

I'm sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they're too good for this kind of stuff [...] The next time somebody goes in - those smart people who say there's something wrong with this - they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question, when they can't find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important - them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?

It was despicable, if unsurprising, to watch a cabinet minister smearing a young woman who’d been volunteering in her preferred career field. And the second part of his statement was the kind of populist hokum that carries as much intellectual weight as an X-Factor judge’s comments (“Well when there’s an earthquake and you’re buried under a pile of tinned tomatoes in Tesco ask yourself who’s more important THEN? You, or the geologist, or the shelf stacker? Yeah. I don’t know either. Makes you think.”)

But such rhetoric is indicative of Duncan Smith’s modus operandi: policy by soundbite. To quote Jane Mansour, a policy consultant who has been involved in welfare-to-work in the UK and Australia for the last 15 years:

‘Tough’ is consistently used as a synonym for ‘effective’. They are not the same thing. It is unclear how the complexity of issues that underpin worryingly high levels of youth unemployment will be addressed by benefit removal for under 25s, or how any job churn and negative impacts on wages that occur as a consequence will be mitigated.

A considerable amount of research data, particularly that on the value of specific interventions, has been compiled or commissioned by DWP and funded by the taxpayer. Wasting such a valuable resource should be condemned forthrightly [...] It’s like deciding to buy a house, paying for a full structural survey, ignoring the issues it identifies, and then building an extension on walls, that (had you read the report you would know) are not strong enough to hold it up.

So it’ll come as absolutely no surprise to hear that - by the DWP’s own reckoning - mandatory work activity schemes such as the one Cait Reilly was supposed to attend are ineffective. That analysis didn't even mention the impact on disabled people. And it’ll also come as no surprise that the analysis was published alongside an announcement that the department was, erm, expanding the scheme.

Perhaps part of the floundering's due to the fact Iain Duncan Smith's trying to solve an impossible problem. You might see him ranting about a something-for-nothing culture, or alleged job snobs like Reilly - but you won’t hear a peep from him about the long-term political and economic failure that’s left nearly five people chasing every vacancy, that saw 4,300 people apply for 150 jobs at Tesco in Gosport and which has left youth unemployment a ticking economic and social time bomb.

His clearest responses have been depressingly predictable: one, smear those who are struggling and two, bring in the private firms. Bashing the young and the poor is good politics, at least (think of all the baby boomer votes he clocked up that Sunday morning), but what about the Work Programme?


Ben (name changed) has been talking to me on the phone this morning. He’s a young man with a science degree from a top university who, last year, did what many graduates have to do right now: sign on. In August 2012, he was referred to the Work Programme by his local job centre. He was referred to a big company - one of the “prime contractors” - and explained he wanted work that was vaguely relevant to his skills and academic background. He was told he’d take what he was given.  So he went his own way through agencies and found work of his own accord: a temping role at - believe it or not - the head office of the same Work Programme company that had given him such little help.

What he saw in his four months there shook him to the core:

Their attitude to job seekers is horrendous. There’s a running joke there, which is that the only way to leave the Work Programme is to die. I don’t believe in the Work Programme, and I don’t believe in scapegoating the unemployed.

They’re insufficiently trained to handle the job as an advisor or a consultant to the jobseekers who participate in the scheme. They only tick boxes and when they run courses, many of them are clueless on what to say or do not encourage the participants properly. There’s so much fraudulent behaviour and so many questionable attitudes, and it’s all driven by the target-driven culture. I had to get out.

What follows is an extract from a letter he sent his MP:

After [my] first interview, I had no contact or advice from [the company], regarding my employment; at all. As I have always been actively looking for work through agencies, I found a job, without help from [the company] or the Job Centre, as a temporary data entry administrator, ironically, to be placed at the main office of [the company]! I started working in early September, and three months after I began working within [the company’s] customer service department. I received a letter stating an appointment dated for November 2012 to which I was mandated to attend or risk losing my benefits. The issue here was that I had signed off my Jobseekers Allowance in August 2012 and I know for a fact that any changes or notifications of claimants on the Work Programme, the Jobcentre sends this information to the Providers.  

"[There are] forms that are used by the Work Programme Providers to validate participant’s information to the DWP in order to receive their payment for “succeeding in finding sustainable employment”. According to the statement in the DWP Guidance, I am fully within my rights to refuse the use of these forms, as I did. The main reason for my refusal was that [the company] did absolutely nothing to help me find any job, let alone my current one at the time in their own offices!  Apart from being underhanded, it is also unethical for them to claim any taxpayer’s money for something they didn’t do.

As he tells me: “They hounded me the moment they heard, so that they could claim payment for it. I knew they would, because I’d seen them do the same thing to everyone else while I was working there.”

Allegations of fraud have dogged the Work Programme ever since its inception. Consider the words of Stephen Lloyd MP, recently interviewed for Radio 4’s File on Four: “Some of the primes took the attachment fee and banked it. I’ve met 40-50 two year returners in the last few months and I’m hearing from too many they were either seen occasionally and a lot of them don’t feel they had the support.” A pretty staggering accusation to make of your own Government’s flagship policy.

And while its performance has improved, Alastair Grimes of the think-tank Rocket Science told the same programme: “The long term unemployed are where they normally are - moving further back in the queue because more people are coming into the queue who are better qualified.”

In response to this, a DWP spokesman tells me:

Since the Work Programme began in 2011 we have seen a significant improvement in performance and we are committed to making sure providers continue to improve the service they give to jobseekers. It is also designed to give taxpayers a good deal - providers get paid on the results they achieve, so it’s in everyone’s interest to help as many people into work as possible.

Over 168,000 jobseekers have escaped long term unemployment and found lasting work – normally at least six months - thanks to the Work Programme. Performance on the WP has improved significantly - by the end of June 2012, 24,000 people had spent at least six months in work (3 months for the hardest to help). By the end of June 2013, this had risen to 168,000.

However, there's also the little-reported news that Deloitte, a corporate finance and consultancy firm, has decided to sell its 50 per cent share in Ingeus, one of the scheme’s Primes. According to Richard Johnson, a parliamentary consultant to the Work and Pensions Committee, some of the companies that bid for contracts offered discounts of 30% and more on the DWP’s suggested price.  Those discounts take effect next financial year at the same time as the government is withdrawing up-front referral fees, leaving companies paid by results alone. If they can’t renegotiate their contracts, they’ll have to make cuts at the front line. There are already concerns over the number of clients on each advisors’ caseloads - with figures of up to 200 being cited in some cases.

Esther McVey has denied companies are losing confidence in the programme, telling Radio 4: "Usually when a business sells its business it would be at the peak rather than at the bottom - especially a company like Deloitte."

But the whispers of mismanagement continue, and they encompass so many other policies. From a personal view: not a week goes by without people asking me to cover a case relating to some aspect of Duncan Smith’s department. Last week it was the blind boy whose father took him to Downing Street in a bid to prove he can’t work and the woman with terminal cancer whose disability living allowance was stopped. There are, bluntly, too many stories for journalists to cover. Of course, it's in the nature of bureaucracies to generate such cases: we've had no cumulative impact assessment so it's impossible to quantify the overall effect of his policies. What we can say is that such cases are no cause for celebration.

Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser