The Work Programme – cheaper but not better

The Committee criticises the Work Programme for failing to find work for 70% claimants who it says require more personalised and intensive support to address complex barriers to working.

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The first four years

Most readers will remember that in the first years of the Work Programme’s operation, every quarter’s publication of performance data was met with widespread media criticism. The most damning and recurrent charge was that 5% of long term unemployed people would be expected to find work without any government help and that the Work Programme wasn’t even reaching this level of performance.

It was always known that performance rates would go up as people spent longer on the programme and providers had more chance to work with them.

So, what’s the picture now, four years into the first six-year contracts (due to expire in April 2017?

A new report (21 October 2015) from the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee helps provide the answers.

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Cheaper

The Committee, chaired by Frank Field MP, found that the Work Programme has streamlined the procurement of welfare-to-work, created a stable, GB-wide welfare-to-work infrastructure, and now produces a similar level of job outcomes for mainstream participants as previous programmes. The Committee says the DWP deserves credit for implementing a programme which, in general, produces results at least as good as before for a greatly reduced cost per participant.

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But not better

However, the Committee goes on to say that too many long-term unemployed people remain out of work after two years on the programme. Nearly 70% of participants are completing the Work Programme without finding sustained employment. In particular, the Work Programme is not working well for people with more complex or multiple barriers to employment who need more intensive help.

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Improvements needed

The Committee concentrates much of its report on how to improve performance for this 70% in the next set of contracts; arguing that the focus of these must be to identify claimants who require more personalised and intensive support to address complex barriers to working, and refer them to appropriate help more quickly.

It makes a number of specific recommendations; saying that the DWP needs to:

  • Develop and introduce a new, standardised, characteristic-based assessment of claimants’ barriers to work, for use across the employment support sector;
  • Replace the Work Programme’s complicated and less than effective differential payment model with a much simpler payment model with clearer (and generally earlier) referral points, and which more directly incentivises providers to invest resources in supporting people with complex needs;
  • Ensure that all participants receive an acceptable level of service, by introducing a single set of measurable minimum standards; and
  • Maintain, and ideally expand, a separate employment programme for disabled people, while also addressing key flaws in the current Work Choice programme.

The Committee goes on to urge the Government to encourage, facilitate and invest in:

  • More effective integration of employment support with related, locally-run services, including health, education and skills, and housing; and
  • Creating the conditions for genuine innovation, learning and dissemination of best practice across the employment support sector.

Procurement for the new contracts starts next Spring, and it will be interesting to see if all the current providers want to bid again, and which new organisations  might want to enter the market.

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