Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

How the Work Programme has failed to perform its job

It was set up to tackle the scourge of long-term unemployment - and Westminster really wanted Northern Ireland to get in on the act.

Earlier this year, Owen Paterson, the then-Northern Ireland Secretary, told an audience at Fisherwick Place that the flagship Work Programme was "the largest single welfare to work initiative seen since the 1930s".

It would be a "key element" in the Government's welfare reform plans, he said, and although it did not exist in Northern Ireland, where such matters are devolved, he said talks were under way with the Executive to see how it might be introduced there.

This has been the hope of the Westminster Government since the programme was launched in June 2011. But they might not be quite so vocal from now on. The first set of results from the Work Programme reveal that it is, well, not really working.

Or at least it's missing its key target. And by quite a way. The idea is to pay private firms according to how many jobseeker's allowance claimants they get off benefits and into work.

Costing a reported £435m, the key target was for 5.5% of people on the programme to get long-term jobs. In the first 13 months, the success rate was just 3.53%.

I attended the Press conference as Mark Hoban, the Employment minister, did his utmost to put a positive spin on the stats.

He's one of the nicest men in Government, but the Press pack was not buying it and he was up against it from the first question.

Under the so-called 'revolution in welfare', providers can earn between £3,700 and £13,700 for every person they help into work, with most of the money paid once stable employment is secured.

Ministers have written to the providers, telling them to buck up their ideas. They point out that it is these private companies, not taxpayers, that bear the risk in a payment-by-results model.

But this didn't stop Ed Miliband from gleefully telling the Prime Minister he had achieved an "historic first" by setting up a scheme that makes you less likely to get a job than doing nothing at all.

That was based on a slightly liberal use of official statistics, but the fact remains that a core of 'hard-to-reach' jobless are so far proving beyond the programme.

It has previously been suggested that, without the Work Programme, the controversial welfare proposals passing through Stormont would be incomplete.

After this first report on its progress, Northern Ireland's Government might reflect that this is one reform it can do without.

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