This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. You can access a version of the article by clicking here.
My article, Welfare Grunters and Workfare Monsters? An Empirical Review of the Operation of Two UK ‘Work Programme’ Centres, published in the Journal of Social Policy, presents research suggesting that welfare-to-work in the UK is not working. The ‘tailored help and support’ promised by the government was generic, reprising the social policy clichés of basic interview training, occasional monitored job-search and CV writing. The ‘success’ rate was in single percentage figures, and even this figure was doubtful given the commonplace practice of ‘benefit switching’ programme participants to questionable self-employment status. Additionally, there were mental health and morale crises amongst participants and staff. ‘Sustainable employment’ outcomes meant only six months in work, 40% of which, in this case, were in more than one job. Sanctions were prompting food poverty, mental and physical heath breakdowns, and even homelessness. The primary positive of the programme was social contact. This was valued by a significant number of participants.
The UK’s Work Programme, introduced in 2011, is intended to radically improve the employment prospects of a range of so-called ‘hard to reach’ unemployed people. It is delivered by private firms and third sector enterprises on a payments-by-results basis. According to the UK government, the scheme is radical, innovative and tailored to individual needs.
Tailored help and support?
The centres researched operated on a minimal budget. Rather than tailored help and support, service provision was generic and limited to CV writing, occasional monitored job search and interview practise. ‘Training’ was broadly restricted to computer skills. This was good quality training, but nevertheless minimal and targeted at the total beginner level. Attendance was usually monthly, with ‘review interviews’ lasting around 15 to, at the very most, 30 minutes. These interviews generally constituted ‘chats’ about life in general, rather than targeted interventions. More qualified participants noted that there was no provision for people with higher qualifications who had left the labour market temporarily, often due to ill health, and were now attempting to re-join it.
The centres had strong operating relationships with the lowest sectors of the labour market, particularly tele-sales, but also the wider low-paid, precarious local employment sector. Staff described this relationship as part of a ‘stepping stones’ approach, necessary to ease ‘hard to reach’ people back into work. However, the majority of participants never worked while on the programme. Only the most ‘employable’ were likely to get back into work – around 5% of participants. Staff claimed that they focussed on all participants broadly equally, but that the labour market itself ensured that only the most employable participants achieved work. There was no evidence of people being forced into unpaid labour. Staff argued that this practice was more trouble than it was worth and rarely led to employment outcomes. However, there were some concerns around ‘apprenticeships’, with some staff suggesting that these were low quality and, at times, exploitative.
Sanctions and Bullying?
Sanctions are a complex issue. Some are raised by the Jobcentre (a separate entity), and some are automatic (e.g. for missing an appointment altogether). Staff had discretion over some sanctions. Numerous sanctions were raised daily and these caused genuine hardship, including food poverty, homelessness and mental health crises. Some participants stated that they were subjected to bullying. However, despite the – often deservedly – negative headlines surrounding the programme, around half of the interviewed participants stated that attending the centres was a positive experience. This had little to do with getting back into work. Rather, the social contact was cited as a vital and valued benefit.
Staff were targeted to get between three and six people into work per month. Even this minimal number was difficult to achieve. However, participants could switch from unemployment benefits to working tax credits simply by declaring themselves as self-employed. It was possible to be self-employed, claim tax credits, and have no other income or even do any work. These ‘sole-traders’ were not audited by tax authorities, as their first year ‘in business’ was expected to be a year of ‘building the business’, rather than of making a profit. The tax credit amount was very close to the unemployment benefit figure, hence, one could ‘switch’ benefits, do no work, and yet avoid further attendance on the programme. Crucially, this counts as a ‘sustainable employment’ outcome. There were strong indications that staff used this loophole to boost outcome rates, while senior informants stated that this practice was a widespread scandal across the programme. This was not illegal, but it does raise serious questions around Work Programme outcome figures, and unprecedentedly high levels of self-employment.
This was one small study across a vast programme. However, its findings reflect certain realities that we might reasonably expect other Work Programme firms to be facing. The company bid low to get the contract. Their service provision was therefore inevitably minimal. The realities of the labour market meant that most participants were simply unwanted. Many were sick and unable to participate in the ‘flexible’ precarious employment sector. The ‘success’ of the centres was minimal, and in-line with the national average (somewhere between 5-10% of participants). Sanctions were used to enforce discipline, often around minor administrative infractions, but nevertheless causing immense hardship. Staff were highly pressurised, and experienced fear and stress due to the payment-by-results programme structure. ‘Zero-work employment’ appeared to have emerged as a key means of achieving otherwise virtually impossible outcome targets. Overall, if this study reflects the national picture, then the Work Programme does not work. However, in a broader indictment of the misery and isolation of long-term unemployment, a significant proportion of participants valued the social contact provided by the programme, stating that they had good or excellent relationships with their caseworkers. Tellingly, when I asked if they meant ‘excellent’ in terms of helping them get back into work, almost every person interviewed said ‘no’.
About the author
Dr John David Jordan is a social policy lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. His primary research centres on welfare and unemployment systems.