It is hard to see what Iain Duncan Smith will gain from his call today for employers to hire indigenous British workers over migrants. The short-term politics of it are fairly straightforward: the government would rather people blamed unemployment on immigration, which for the time being can still be portrayed as a Labour legacy, than on their own economic policies.
But commercial enterprises aren’t generally minded to set their recruitment drives to spare ministers’ blushes. It is their job, so they say, to hire the best people and it is government’s task to run an education and training system that turns out credible candidates.
David Frost of the British Cambers of Commerce put it pretty bluntly on the Today programme this morning:
[Employers] expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write, communicate and have a strong work ethic, and too often that’s not the case … And there’s a stream of highly able eastern European migrants who are able to take those jobs, and that’s why they’re taking them on.
IDS’s point is essentially that the government — through the Work Programme, which got up and running this month — will change all of that, and businesses should take note. No doubt they will, if the Work Programme does what it is supposed to. The idea is that private sector firms will prepare unemployed people for work and get money from the DWP budget if they manage it. It is arguably the most ambitious “payment by results” system for welfare-to-work policies anywhere in the world.
But the point that IDS seems to be ignoring is that the system is explicitly designed to function as a market. Government shouldn’t have to intervene to direct employers’ hiring policy. The Work Programme providers only get paid if they place people in work. So if the policy is a success, there will be no need for businesses to start actively favouring indigenous Brits — they’ll have them on the books already. And if they don’t, then something will have gone badly wrong with the Work Programme model. The rate at which under-educated and under-skilled British workers get back into the labour market is clearly a test of IDS’s policy. He can’t start blaming businesses in advance in case it doesn’t work.
Of course, success in that respect depends most of all on the rate of job creation in the economy as a whole. The Office for Budget Responsibility (using models from the Treasury) forecasts the appearance of 1.3m new jobs by 2015, which are presumed to come from increased private sector investment. That assumption follows from the broader expectation that GDP growth will bounce back to just under 3 per cent over the same period.
Most economists I speak to think those forecasts are pretty optimistic. And some of the unsuccessful bidders for Work Programme contracts (and some successful ones) have told me they think the whole thing will falter because there simply won’t be enough jobs out there — and they suggest a number of providers have been naïve or lazy in their estimates of how much it actually costs to rehabilitate someone after a long period of unemployment. So the ingenious market mechanism could malfunction. Result: the DWP in dispute with private sector contractors who aren’t delivering the goods, and stubborn joblessness.
It looks as if IDS is getting nervous about his ability to get unemployed Britain back to work. If he fails, it won’t be the fault of immigrants or business.