The Work Programme is a recognition by the Coalition Government that many unemployed people, especially the young and most vulnerable, need help to gain stable employment.
Billed as "a revolution in welfare" when it was launched two years ago, the idea was to tackle the problem of long-term unemployment by paying companies and charities according to their success in getting claimants facing the greatest difficulties into work.
The figures released today show how far it has failed. In the first year of operation, up to July last year, only 3.6% of people referred to the programme moved off benefit and into work: less than one-third of the target of 11.9%. Even worse, according to the calculations of the Department for Work and Pensions, 9.2% could have been expected to have moved into employment without any intervention.
Incentives were supposed to ensure the focus was on the young and those with additional problems. Yet only 20 of the 9500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to the programme were placed in a job that lasted three months.
It is particularly important to help young people who have been unemployed for long periods to find work before they become demoralised and the gap in their CV an insuperable hurdle but the provider with the worst results did not place a single person under 25 into a job lasting six months.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee has found evidence that the companies contracted to provide the service are increasingly "creaming and parking", in other words concentrating their efforts on those they can place in work more easily and leaving the most difficult cases. It is clear the incentives to provide for those most in need have not worked. Their failure ought to bring about a reappraisal of the case for providing a publicly funded service through a profit-led model given the inherent conflict.
Calling for the Work Programme to be scrapped is an understandable response but that fails to recognise the merit in the original intention of giving specific help to those who find it most difficult to move off benefits and into work. With these shocking results following the Appeal Court ruling last week that it was unlawful to require benefit claimants to work for nothing, the Government must now accept that the Work Programme as currently constituted is not fit for purpose and consider alternatives. The worst providers must be made to improve their practice.
Instead of spending public money on commercial companies which lack the expertise required to move the less job-ready claimants into employment, the Government should engage organisations with a successful track record.
In Scotland, a partnership between the voluntary sector and the Scottish Government has been particularly successful in providing paid work experience for unemployed teenagers. Another option would be to fund more apprenticeships so that young people in particular gain the real skills required in the workplace, making them more attractive to employers.
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