Jobcentre Plus is the main point of contact with the state for job seekers and it needs to adapt. In an ideal world, visiting the jobcentre should be like visiting your GP. The role of the person helping you should be to diagnose the specifics of the barriers to employment, and help you access specialist help.
The graduate whose industry is in a down-turn needs different, specialist advice to the person with a chronic, long-term illness. Each of their barriers to work could be addressed given the right help, but a generalist approach is unlikely to work. We need to direct people quickly to expert sources of help to conquer the disease of unemployment.
The service provided at jobcentres is too often impersonal, and people are made to feel like they are the problem, out to cheat. While there will always be people who play the system – and we need to make sure that job seeking benefits are paid to those who are genuinely seeking work – the majority of people do want to find work.
With long-term unemployment increasing, it is clear that the government’s work programme is also not working. It is supposed to deliver tailored support for the long-term unemployed who need more help to undertake active and effective job seeking, supporting them to overcome barriers that prevent them from finding and staying in work.
Yet, the work programme’s failures have been well documented. The National Audit Office has raised doubts that the programme will achieve the DWP’s target of getting 40 per cent of the largest group of job seekers in the programme into employment. 96 charity providers have dropped out of the programme since its inception. And it seems the only people to have benefited from the scheme are Tory donors.
The challenge for us is to identify where and why the work programme has gone wrong, so that we can fix the mess that we are likely to inherit from this shambles of a government.
The high drop-out rate of charity providers is cause for concern and is symptomatic of an inherent flaw in the work programme. At the programme’s heart is the principal of payment by results. Large companies have deep pockets and can afford to wait for a return on their investment. Smaller organisations, including many charities, do not have that luxury. This uncertainty in the payment method means it is harder for small organisations to take on staff.
Smaller organisations are normally specialists, and work with people who have specific and complex issues, such as those with a history of drug misuse or ex-offenders. There are no quick fixes for these cases and the focused and intensive support provided is costly. There is little financial incentive for large organisations in helping these disadvantaged groups, and so under this work programme, people are being left on the scrapheap.
In a couple of specific ways, the work programme is similar to previous initiatives introduced by the last Labour government such as the new deal and pathways to work. These schemes helped concentrations of joblessness, for example amongst those aged over 50 and disabled people, to overcome barriers to employment. But they were in place when the economy was growing and jobs were available. During a period of double-dip recession, I would question whether the exact same policies that worked in times of growth would be the right ones for today.
The future jobs fund is an example of a policy introduced by the last Labour government following the financial crisis and during a time of recession. It supported 18-24 year olds who had been unemployed for six months or longer, and offered real jobs, a salary, training and support. This successful scheme was casually closed down by the incoming coalition, with no equivalent, well resourced replacement. The result has been a 264 per cent increase in long term youth unemployment.
The most obvious way to get the long-term unemployed back into work is to grow the economy again and create jobs, something that George Osborne has abjectly failed to deliver. No back-to-work programme will be successful if there are no jobs to go into at the other end.
Flexibility will also be the key to success for any future programmes, with the ability to change to meet local needs. As flawed and under resourced as they are, the back-to-work programmes should be linked to local enterprise partnerships (or their successors), with local authorities and local businesses working together to address local problems and pockets of worklessness.
There is still time for the government to turn the work programme around, get the economy growing, create more jobs, change the funding system for smaller, specialist providers and improve the jobcentre so that it is more supportive. I live in hope.
But if they fail, the next Labour government should be ready to lead again. Especially in the effort to get Britain back to work.