Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Trouble ahead for Cameron's Work Programme

Every week at PMQs, in response to the many questions he receives about unemployment and welfare, David Cameron consistently refers to the implementation of the Work Programme - the Coalition's replacement welfare-to-work scheme for the unemployed - as the means by which the country's labour market problems will be solved.

Cameron does this so frequently that last week I asked on Twitter what evidence does he have - if any - that the Work Programme is working and, if there is any evidence, is he sharing it?  After some rooting I found that there is an official evaluation of the Work Programme by CESI, but that we won't see qualitative evidence on its success for another six months, and the statistical analyses won't come until next Winter.

In a time of increasing unemployment and huge welfare changes, it is surely too long to wait until next Winter to get some hard facts about whether the Government's landmark scheme is actually having any effect.  However, some early evidence on its impact comes here, from the National Audit Office, and the signs aren't good for Mr Cameron.

Although praising the Work Programme's central feature of 'payment-by-results', the NAO highlighted the following problems:

  • 14% fewer over-25s would get jobs compared with official estimates.
  • Programme providers run the risk of getting into 'serious financial difficulty' due to the ambitious targets built into the system.
  • The 'harder to help' category (previous IB claimants) are getting less support than expected.
  • The absence of a proper evaluation study now was a cause for concern.
The NAO also said it was a concern that no alternatives to the Work Programme had been considered.  What this represents is David Cameron's quasi-fundamentalist belief - on display every Wednesday at PMQs - that the Work Programme is a panacea for all sorts of problems.  However, as those of us who study welfare-to-work understand, the effect of such schemes is often modest and dependent upon buoyant labour market conditions.  

If Ed Miliband has any sense, he will make the NAO's report the centrepiece of his questioning to the Prime Minister tomorrow.  Coalition ministers consistently celebrate the Work Programme as their central strategy to defeat high unemployment.  Yet the early evidence from the NAO is that it is far from the panacea it is heralded as.  While it's still early days, it's time the Government thought of new approaches to welfare-to-work as the labour market plummets.  It is up to Labour to hold them to account.

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