9 Jul 2012

Is the Work Programme working?

About ten days ago we revealed that one of the government’s biggest contractors on the Work Programme, A4E, is only getting three out of a hundred people into sustainable work.

At the time the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggested that our analysis, based on leaked figures undisputed by A4E, was “ludicrous”. Their argument mainly centred around the timeframe. Our figures covered June last year to March 2012 and focused on job outcomes, the number of people who’d been found work through the Work Programme which lasted for 13 or 26 weeks.

The DWP then said we’d have to wait until the autumn before official statistics could give any clear sense of how the Work Programme is going.

So it was all rather a pleasant surprise today when they invited us to the offices of the DWP headquarters and presented us with some new figures of their own. They cover the period June to March – sounds familiar – and they show, according to the employment minister, that the Work Programme is having a “positive effect” on helping the long term unemployed.

Read more on FactCheck: is the Work Programme worse than nothing?

So here are some of the key numbers they gave us today.

Tracking the progress of 29,000 people who joined the work programme in June last year, they found that:

–  Just under half had signed off benefits at some stage,

– 24 per cent had signed off for 13 continuous weeks

–  And 14 per cent had come off benefits for six months or more.

A ‘promising start’?

Now to be fair, the minister was keen to put in lots of caveats, early days and so on, but insisted that these figures show a “promising start” in a very difficult labour market. But do they?

There’s a very important distinction here. These figures are specifically about people coming off benefits. That is not the same as people getting into work. Chris Grayling [pictured] did concede that point today but told us that he believes, of those who have signed off, “most” are finding a job of some sort.

Analysts who looked at the figures for us today, disagree. And here’s the evidence they point to: in the last few months for instance, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that on average only around half of all the people who signed off benefits actually went into jobs lasting 16 hours a week or more.

A further breakdown shows that many choose instead to go back to school, go on a training course or simply stop signing on and disappear from the system. Now clearly the government assumes a lot of those people who come off benefits for “unknown” reasons are getting work. That may be true. It may not.

So what do today’s figures tell us about how well the Work Programme is working?

Well if the aim is to get people off benefits then on today’s numbers – yes, that’s happening. If it’s about people actually getting back into work, then we will have to wait for more detailed figures before we can safely say that too is true.

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