Regular readers will know that FactCheck has taken a keen interest in the Work Programme since the welfare-to-work scheme launched in 2011.
There has been a good deal of bad news to report since then, not least the fact that the programme failed to hit its minimum performance standards two years running.
But the latest stats out today have been hailed as a positive development by the government and the welfare-to-work industry.
The early results were dismal. Has the Work Programme finally turned itself around?
The government set out these performance targets – based on what analysts thought would have happened to jobseekers anyway without help from the Work Programme providers – when it designed the scheme. (We’ve pinched this graph from the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the main industry body for welfare-to-work.)
You get the percentage by dividing the number of job outcome payments the companies claim for getting someone into work for at least three or six months by the number of unemployed people on their books.
In years one and two the providers failed to hit the percentages for all three high-priority groups: people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) aged 18-24, older JSA claimants and new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (who are ill or disabled).
The government was looking for a 44 per cent success rate for the JSA 18-24 group, 33 per cent for job seekers aged 25 or above and 17 per cent for the new ESA claimants.
In year one the Work Programme fell woefully short with percentages of just 1 per cent for both categories of JSA claimant and 0.6 per cent for the ill and disabled claimants, according to today’s figures.
People can spend up to two years on the Work Programme, so there was always going to be a slow start while the scheme got up and running. But this was a particularly bad start.
Things picked up in year two but the percentages still failed to surpass the minimum standards laid down by the architects of the programme.
The good news
Today’s excitement reflects the fact that the improvement has continued in the first part of year three, and both JSA groups are now hitting success rates well above the minimum.
From April to June 2013, nearly 18,000 18-24-year-olds started on the Work Programme and more than 10,000 young people got a job in the same period.
That’s a success rate of nearly 58 per cent – well above the minimum target of 44 per cent.
More than 37,000 JSA claimants aged 25 and over were referred to the programme in the same period and just over 46 per cent found work. The target was 33 per cent.
The bad news
ESA claimants – who have an illness or disability – are being poorly served. In the “new ESA claimants” category only 6.9 per cent of people found a job against a target of 17 per cent.
This suggests that Work Programme providers are generally failing to get results with their most challenging clients.
We don’t know why, but research earlier this year suggested that predictions of “creaming and parking” – where firms concentrate on the easiest kind of jobseeker to help and let the tougher cases languish on benefits – have come true.
Another big caveat is that we only have data from the first three months of 2013/2014 to go on.
ERSA phrases its assessment of these figures carefully, saying: “The industry is on track to exceed its year three minimum performance levels for job seekers on JSA.”
That’s a bit like saying Arsenal are “on track” to the win the Premier League, because, at time of writing, they’re top of the table.
Could things get worse rather than better in the rest of 2013/14? ERSA makes an optimistic prediction of ever-improving results, but there is some cause for pessimism in the figures.
The number of job outcome payments and extra “sustainment payments” for people who stay in long-term work fell or flatlined in the first three months of year three.
The proportion of people referred who get a job within 12 months has also fallen slightly month-on-month after peaking in April 2012.
Could the recent rally be running out of steam?
There’s some cause for celebration here, in that two out of three of the main targets are currently being met.
If this relative success continues over the whole of this year the government may yet convince a sceptical public that it’s flagship back-to-work scheme has been worth it.
But there remain serious questions over the fate of ill and disabled benefit claimants.
And if we look at the lifetime of the Work Programme so far, the headline figures remain depressing.
Of the 1.3 million people referred to the scheme since 2011, only 168,000 have found proper work, and around a third of them did not remain in employment.
Only one in seven people who have spent sufficient time on the programme to trigger a job outcome payment have actually done so.
By Patrick Worrall