factfiction_108x60The claim

“The Work Programme is successfully helping people to turn their lives around so they can look after themselves and their families.”
Esther McVey, 20 March 2014

The background

FactCheck has been tracking the progress of the Work Programme since it was launched in June 2011.

The scheme outsources the task of helping long-term unemployed back to work to private and third sector providers, who get a series of payments depending on how long their clients stay in the job.

Initial results were miserable, leading us to question whether this massive project was achieving better results than we would have expected if the government had done precisely nothing.

Later performance data was more optimistic, although the programme was still failing the sick and disabled badly.

Now we have more information to go on. Employment Minister Esther McVey thinks it is cause for celebration, saying: “Over a quarter of a million long-term unemployed people have been helped into a sustained job thanks to the Work Programme – that’s a quarter of a million people who previously might have been written off now with the security of regular wage.”

The Public and Commercial Services union said the programme was delivering five times more benefit sanctions than jobs. General secretary Mark Serwotka called it “an unmitigated failure”.

The analysis

For a long time, FactCheck and others criticised the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for not publishing enough data about the performance of the Work Programme.

Now we get more figures, graphs and charts than anyone could reasonably want to read in a lifetime. It’s a veritable blizzard of statistics, and cutting through the spreadsheets to get to the heart of the matter is an unenviable task. We’re going to do our best.

The government rightly says that more than a quarter of a million people have found a job and stayed in it for at least three or six months – the minimum needed to trigger a payment to the provider, depending on which benefit was being claimed.

That’s just over 250,000 people out of 1,482,500 job seekers, so a success rate of 17 per cent.

Is that good or bad? It’s difficult to put into context, but there are a number of obvious comparisons we can make.

The number of people who completed the full two years of the Work Programme without finding work and got sent back to the job centre was 352,000 – almost 100,000 more than the number who found a job.

And it’s true to say that more people have had their benefits stopped by DWP as a punishment for various misdemeanours than have found work through the Work Programme.

More than half a million people were “sanctioned” between October 2012 and June 2013.  About 174,000 of these had their payments stopped for failing to participate in the Work Programme or other training schemes during that time.

What is “a sustained job”?

We know that those quarter of a million people were in a job for at least three or (for most) six months, but what happened after that?

Providers get a number of other payments the longer the client stays in work.

Millions of “sustainment payments” have been made but only 48,000 people, or 3 per cent of the total intake, were in work long enough for the provider to get the maximum amount of cash available.

Worse than nothing?

As we first pointed out back in July 2012, there was always a danger that in a stalling economy, the government’s targets for getting people back into work would prove too ambitious.

And lo, in the first year of the Work Programme it failed miserably to hit the minimum percentages, which the government judged to be the numbers of people who would have found work anyway in the absence of any scheme.

The most recent figures suggest we are now hitting the targets for two out of three groups of people.

Over the first nine months of the Work Programme’s third year, 72 per cent of 18-24-year-olds referred found a job, beating the target of 44 per cent.

For over-25s the success rate was 51 per cent, just beating the target of 33 per cent.

But for ill and disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), only 12 per cent of people referred found a sustained job, the target being 17 per cent.

This is the third year where it looks as though people with an illness or disability would have done better without any help from the Work Programme, according to the government’s own modelling.

That could prove to be an increasingly big problem, because ESA claimants are making up a bigger proportion of the  caseload:


Getting worse

The increasing percentage of harder-to-help people could explain why success rates have begun to fall steadily month-on-month, according to various measures.

After hitting a high in spring 2012, the proportion of people who got a sustained job within 12 months of being referred fell consistently, from nearly 14 per cent in April 2012 to 10.7 per cent by the end of that year.


The percentage of people who had a break in benefit payments of any length also fell over the same period.

The verdict

There are such a bewildering array of statistics here that you could almost twist them into almost any story you want.

Our take on the Work Programme is that the results were truly terrible in the first year, but they have improved somewhat since then.

The evidence from the last six months is that the scheme is now comfortably hitting its targets for people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, but still failing sick and disabled people claiming ESA.

The fact that ESA claimants are proving to be so hard to help – and that they now make up a bigger proportion of the total caseload – does not bode well for the future. It seems reasonable to predict that the falling success rates observable in these figures will continue.

It will be years before we can judge the Work Programme’s success over the whole of its lifetime, but there are still serious questions for the government to answer about its design and execution.