The Work Programme, people and economy part 4 - 'failure' and 'success'

The final part of a four part series on the Work Programme, examining what the programme means by 'success' and 'failure'.

Deborah Padfield
18 February 2015

Parking and those who 'fail'

The Programme can refer people to outside courses or treatments - perhaps for literacy, numeracy, mental ill-health or substance abuse - but funds have to be found. Such payments are not the responsibility of Programme providers. I remember an older job-seeker bitterly frustrated by his provider's refusal to support an application for funding for the construction industry's certification test, the CSCS, though younger people had been funded. Two other people, both severely socially phobic, were told to find and attend respectively mental health counselling and literacy classes, but no free one-to-one provision was available locally. These people were 'parked', their providers opting not to put effort into them. Responsibility for failure to achieve rested with them: until they could resource their own training or treatment, the Programme would give no further help. To be ignored may be better than being directed to unmanageable activities, but where 'support' is promised, 'a phone call once a month' - as described by one witness to the TSRC - counts as rejection.

Where they're available, treatment or courses can be positive. TSRC gives a valuable set of insights from providers, one of whom speaks of people "being referred onto, say, drug and alcohol services who will be working with them and until they have their condition managed then you can’t work with them. So there might be a perception of parking because it’s taking longer." Fair enough. Provided effective, sustained treatment is provided.

However, funding is crucial. "As one experienced operator in the welfare-to-work field commented: 'Regardless of what the government are saying... they haven’t funded it properly to be able to get a good service. They wanted to move to an all-encompassing service and they had an ideal opportunity to do that... and it’s just not happening, is it? Or it’s not happening on the scale that they wanted it to...'" ERSA, the Employment Related Services Association to which many Programme providers belong, identifies funding as a problem.

Periodically government addresses this problem, announcing and re-announcing 'pilot' projects to link people with mental health problems to treatment: without any difficulty I have found four such announcements between November 2013 and December 2014. This is variously portrayed as extra support and extra anti-scrounger conditionality. I have found no reports on these pilots' effectiveness.

There is in any case a prior question. In order to make appropriate referrals to courses or treatment, Programme staff need knowledge and expertise. Some providers use profiling tools to improve on DWP's crude categorisation of individual needs, a technique more widely used in Australia, while others do not though many argue they should. Providers are not helped by "poor quality information passed to them by Jobcentre Plus" when people are referred. Either way, "will those frontline advisers know what to do with that customer? Doubt it. Probably park them" [TSRC]. Another witness testified that "job advisers within a particular Prime might lack the knowledge (and are bowed by pressure from high caseloads) to refer jobseekers to appropriate sub-contractors, by implication, leaving them to be parked."

These are people struggling with major problems. "There have been a lot of undiagnosed mental health conditions, as secondary... illnesses... some of these people have got extremely complex barriers before they even think about going into work... And yet they’re a JSA customer and... the number of times that I want to say, ‘This person should not be on the Work Programme,... they need to be left alone for at least six months and helped to sort out the other issues that they have.'"

Those who are 'parked' will neither be left alone nor helped. For jobseekers, the weekly 'active jobsearch' monitored by fortnightly (or more frequent) signing-on is inescapable. Those still on ESA may be left alone by the Programme save for the overhanging anxiety of the work capability assessment, or they may be caught in a relentless cycle of 'activities' which, according to anticipated outcome levels, no one believes will be productive.

We end up with the worst of every world. People with major long-term difficulties are set up very clearly to fail: statistically, across the 'payment groups', the Programme makes it at best a probability and at worst a near-certainty. For up to three years they undergo experiences that are unsuitable and/or inadequate to their needs. The aim is to encourage and enable these people to relearn self-reliance and respect. For an impassioned account of life on the Work Programme by someone with chronic and severe insomnia, see the Mental Health Forum. Though not necessarily a typical experience, it sounds all too credible. I have too often heard or read the words 'humiliation', 'fear' and 'anger' in relation to experience of JCPlus and the Programme. Feedback into a Scottish government report on the impacts of welfare reform echo the message. To make someone "feel as if you’re a parasite", their needs and struggles ignored or dismissed, could hardly be more counter productive - or inhumane.

What then of those who are creamed? They sound like the privileged. But it is an uncertain privilege.

Creaming and those who 'succeed'

Most job-seekers must on pain of sanction apply for a minimum number of jobs every week. I remember talking with one intelligent and low-skilled man forced to send in a stream of applications for jobs for which he was wholly unqualified. His only way of maintaining a semblance of self-respect was, increasingly, to regard the Programme and his 'adviser' with biting contempt. It's a reaction I've met many times; for its part, the Confederation of British Industry is concerned about the impact of "large numbers of 'inappropriate' applications" on its members. It's not clear what is achieved, beyond an appearance of toughness towards benefit claimants.

Perhaps worse, though, is the pressure to accept jobs. The claimant commitment requires people to accept and not voluntarily to leave any 'reasonable' work, as defined by the Programme provider with appeal to JCPlus. The minimum sanction for such offences is 13 weeks stoppage of JSA, 26 weeks for a second offence. I helped one man appeal a sanction when he'd given up his job as a vegetable packer when the colleague giving him a 5am lift to the rural factory left the job. He could take a bus but there were no buses after 6pm, when he'd be returning. Travel is a common problem: for single parents, it's too often travel plus childcare plus school times.

Given the difficulty in achieving payments and the requirement to total 3 or 6 months' work cumulatively over the two years, providers are incentivised to put heavy pressure on anyone capable of finding, and keeping, jobs. To achieve the more profitable 'sustainment payments' later received when people stay in consecutive month-long chunks of work, encouraging self-employment is an obvious option. Even if someone is not earning consecutively, they will count for a sustainment payment if they are 'self-employed' and hence off benefits. Every CAB has struggled to advise 'self-employed' people with no income.

The quality of job outcomes is inevitably compromised. Indeed, since the Programme's aims contains no qualitative assessment of jobs, it would be truer to say that quality is irrelevant.

The Programme thus feeds straight into the prevailing precarious, low-skilled jobs market with all its negative connotations for workers. Concentrating as it does simply on getting people into work and keeping them there, the Programme pays no attention to their progression out of poverty and insecurity and into the kind of work associated with improved health and wellbeing.

Where to from the Programme?

The Work Programme contracts run until 2015, providers working with their last participants until 2017. The first still-unemployed participants finished in 2013, and from April 2014 the Department put in place 'Help to Work' as their next step. The previous May, the Work & Pensions Committee had expressed concern at the lack of post-Programme plans. The result suggests that the Department's efforts were hardly rigorous. After up to three years with JCPlus and the Programme, under 'Help to Work' continuing claimants are offered essentially more of the same, though with added intensity and threat of sanctions. This is itself a confession of the Department's unwillingness (or inability) to reassess the nature of these people's situations and fruitful ways of addressing them.

During 2013 the Department consulted on the shape of the successor to the Programme - we await the report. In a 2013 pre-consultation paper, ERSA asked its members questions raising a broad swathe of concerns including the nature of 'outcomes', access to funding for training, targeted support for disabled and other more-disadvantaged groups and whether 'distance travelled' towards work could be valued as well as getting work itself.

It also asks some fundamental questions about a 'Work Programme 2'. So too does the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion (CESI).

CESI supports integrating support for in-work progression, in pay and skills, to work programme and universal credit. It challenges government's focus on individual responsibility for unemployment, like the JRF arguing for both increased in-work training and for increased demand for skilled jobs into which people can progress. A future work programme must tackle the barriers to work created by the job market itself - something limited in the Programme by lack of incentives and lack of funding. These are needs not only for Programme participants but for the increased productivity of the UK economy.

Widening the mandate and increasing the effectiveness of a future programme is crucial. Government's commitment to presenting both benefits system and Programme in isolation is damaging. The benefits system and its claimants are made to bear an unrealistic burden, bearing the costs of and responsibilities for problems posed by a low-skill economy, stagnating pay and a rising cost of living, particularly in housing. It is equally unreal for Programme participants to surmount logjams caused by a UK jobs market unresponsive to the needs of UK people.

What hits me is the hypocritical inequity of the current approach. The Programme's optimistic minimum performance levels reveal that the majority of participants were not expected to achieve its meagre goals. That in itself suggests that the Programme was either misdirected or inadequate. 

And yet by 'failing', people are cast as social and moral failures and subjected to an ever-intensifying coercive regime. The Programme is predicated upon a dualism of 'welfare dependence rather than self-reliance'. David Cameron said the same thing last February when he contrasted being 'trapped in a cycle of dependency' with being able to 'stand on their own two feet'. This, he says, is a matter of morality.

The result is stark. The net is spreading wider and becoming more demanding under Universal Credit and Help to Work. It is more than time for reconsideration of the basic ideology.

Basic rule: always look below the headlines. Above all, that rule should include policy-makers in all political parties. Persistent poverty has complex roots which have to be acknowledged and addressed. Individuals should take 'responsibility', but so too should the State, employers, shareholders and all others who benefit from growing inequities.

Hannah Arendt, writing of a very different context, suggests that wartime Hungarians 'were a group of illusionists who had fed so long on self-deception that they had lost any sense of incongruity'. [Eichmann in Jerusalem]. It's a salutary suggestion. I was staggered by the incongruities of the Work Programme, but government headlines encourage our self-deception about what it is and is not.

By not paying attention, we accept a system that treats people as expendable in the name of budgetary, economic and moral disciplines constructed to benefit others. In a self-styled humane democracy, indifference isn't good enough.


You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

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