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Tuesday, November 27, 2012 

The coalition isn't working.

The news that the government's much vaunted work programme isn't working is about as much of a surprise as the equally exciting discovery that some people when living abroad adopt the mannerisms and even accent of their hosts, including, horror of horrors, footballers and football managers.

Much as the coalition is deserving of a kicking for setting up a programme it knew was untested, similarities to the Flexible New Deal aside, it should instead be receiving a veritable truckload of opprobrium for one of its very first acts of vandalism, one that we've discussed before.  The abolition of Labour's Future Jobs Fund, where the young unemployed were found subsidised work with local charities and paid at least the minimum wage, was one of the most vindictive and counter-productive decisions made by the new government.  A study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (PDF) and peer-reviewed by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that those who had took part in the scheme were 11% more likely to be in unsubsidised employment than those who hadn't, while they were also 7% less likely to be in receipt of benefits.

Contrast this to the data released today on the work programme.  The government set the 18 various contractors (mostly private firms) the target of getting 5.5% of those referred to them into a job for six months.  Not a single one has managed to achieve this: most successful was Maximus, which missed the target by 0.4%, while the worst performer was JHP, which found sustainable jobs for just 220 of the 11,820 people referred to them, or a pitiful 2.2%.  Even if we accept the argument from both the government and the contractors that these are initial figures which will improve, and the average achievement rate doubles to 7% as problems are ironed out, then the scheme with still have failed to be anywhere near as effective as the FJF was.

It's true that this is hardly the first government to ignore evidence which isn't helpful to its wider political aims.  Gordon Brown ignored the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and reclassified cannabis as Class B, while Lord Goldsmith famously changed his tune on the legality of the Iraq war for reasons we can only speculate on (as a side note, it's worth remembering that the Chilcot inquiry is still to report while Leveson is due to on Thursday, despite both hearing a similar amount of evidence).  A reasonable government would though have waited for the evidence on the FJF to come in before taking any action on it either way.  Likewise, when confronted with the study on the mandatory work activity programme, which showed that its effect was so severe on some referred onto it that they were soon claiming employment and support allowance, a responsible government would have either modified it drastically or abandoned it.  Instead, then minister Chris Grayling provided funding for another 9,000 places.

While the refusal to change MWA looked as though it was influenced by the determination of this government to be seen as punishing "scroungers", something it has most certainly achieved, the fixation on the work programme doesn't seem to be helping anyone.  It certainly isn't helping the vast majority of the long-term unemployed; it's making the firms running the scheme look fairly useless; it isn't saving any money as more than ever is being spent on jobseeker's allowance; and as  the politicians themselves are privately admitting, to Nick Robinson at least, the scheme is a "failure", so it's hardly doing much for them.

This doesn't mean the FJF should be reintroduced as it was: as the man who ran the scheme argues, it should have been improved and better run, as almost any government programme could.  It more than suggests however that in this instance at least the state needs to have a role, even if it's only to subsidise those who need not just opportunity but also a decent wage in order to then move on.  As this goes against everything the modern Conservative party believes, the likelihood of ministers changing their minds is even lower than the percentage of sustainable jobs provided by JHP.

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