Compared to previous programmes, the Work Programme is not helping more people into work or keeping them in work longer. As we move into more favourable economic conditions the WP should improve, but comparisons to previous programmes (that operated under unfavourable conditions) would then become invalid. Improvements that reflect the economic environment would not be an indicator of the efficacy of the WP, but rather an indicator of the importance of demand: if there are more jobs available, more people get and keep jobs.
The WP is moving more people off benefits – which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you take the Treasury’s or the individual’s perspective.
The Work Programme is continuing to under-perform compared to the government’s expectations. However, given that the government expected the WP to out-perform previous programmes without explaining – or even knowing, given the black box approach – what was superior about the support offered on the WP then this result is not necessarily surprising.
The overall cost of the WP is essentially the same as previous programmes, with an expected saving of £41 million over nine years – or 1% per year of the yearly cost of the programme, which may be so small a saving as to be easily lost to natural variability.
WP providers have reduced the amount they spend on average on ESA claimants. This may be valid, in recognition that some of the people concerned may not actually be capable of the type or amount of support the WP was expecting to offer. Given the recent report by Catherine Hale that the WP is driving ESA claimants further away work, a reduction in requirements and therefore spending from the WP may be appropriate. However, the providers ought to be finding forms of support – perhaps including job brokering, phased returns to work and mini-jobs – that are appropriate. Other support might include navigating social security, addressing non-health-related barriers to work and liaising with the claimant’s medical team to improve healthcare.
Supporting ESA claimants might fall into a dichotomy – very little support, whilst waiting for a recovery to occur; or intensive support, including job brokering and improved healthcare. The WP providers appear to have taken the former route, reducing their average expenditure from an expected £1360/claimant to an actual £630/claimant (in contrast the average spend on a JSA claimant is £870). But if claimants are to be genuinely helped, not left to help themselves, then it is the second route that needs to be taken. This is more expensive, and if the returns are not substantial then it may not be cost effective compared to low expenditure for low return. The low expenditure route, however, ignores the human cost to the individuals who want to work and establish a secure and fulfilled life, but are unable to do so because of the lack of either adequate financial support or support to work that is currently provided by the social security system and Work Programme.