On Wallace, the Work Programme and Being in Control

Watching telly with the kids I sometimes find myself irreverently drawing on cartoon philosophy. The wisdom of Homer Simpson may not be everyone’s cup of tea at a policy seminar or funeral, but their thoughts do cross one’s mind.

 In this spirit of irreverence, I could not help wondering what Wallace (not that Wallis – the one made of plasticine ) would have said about events in the news, noting the appearance of certain persons before a parliamentary select committee this afternoon. 

“Don’t worry Gromit, everything is under control!” he calls out in The Wrong Trousers, just as his aerobatic disarray is telling us that nothing could be further from the truth! The emollient PR adviser’s tone is there for all to see, though none of the protagonists seem to fit the role of the obedient Labrador.

How far the same caption could apply to the Government’s welfare to work policies is a question more suitable for this blog. There are doubtless other more straightforward parallels but the argument that “Everything is under control” while the world is manifestly in a spin, seems too good to miss.

First, the economy seems in an uncertain state. The Government is in a position where its successes and failures can no longer be put down to the deeds of the previous administration. The Ernst and Young forecaster Item Club offered its prognosis yesterday of a growth rate bobbing along at 1.4 per cent with a “sub par” 2.2 per cent predicted for 2012.

What this means is that the private sector is unlikely to generate the new jobs needed to replace the many that will be lost in the public sector. Britain’s austerity measures will result in 495,000 jobs being lost, according to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility – though research by organisations like the CIPD has put this much higher.

This is not good news for those whose role it is to find work for the workless. The growth figures due later this month seem likely to be bad too and the Chancellor’s deficit reduction strategy is destined to come under closer scrutiny.

Larry Elliot writing for the Guardian suggests George Osborne’s luck may be running out.  Economists don’t necessarily agree of course – as George Bernard Shaw commented “…if all economists in the world were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”

But if the economic scenario is remotely as predicted, what then will happen to the Government’s new Work Programme? The size of the change coming to the welfare to work industry has to be appreciated. On the face of things, the business of getting people back into work is due to assume more sense of purpose than before.

For example, anyone currently on incapacity benefit could in future be placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance and end up being expected to find work. The Work Programme will be the vehicle of support but major doubts have been raised as to whether it will succeed in economically weak areas.

Last month the Work Foundation brought out a report arguing that a major problem was the programme’s failure to take into account regional differences in availability of work.

In short, they argued, it failed to give welfare to work providers credit for the fact that getting people back to work may be immeasurably more difficult in Merthyr Tydfil or Thanet than in other more affluent parts of the country. (See the Telegraph article)

One of the problems with the programme is likely to be that there will be a generic test to determine individual capacity to work. CESI, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, has pointed out that the Work Programme will not give welfare to work providers the information they need to support the varied needs of customers.

So, it was probably always going to be tough to make the Work Programme deliver the returns claimed for it. Harder to help groups like lone parents and older workers will be particularly vulnerable to this generic “all singing and all dancing” form of needs assessment. 

Older jobseekers tell TAEN of the difficulties they have in gaining reentry to work, stories amply borne out by the labour statistics. (Older job seekers represent the most intractable group of long term unemployed.) Without special measures and incentives for the providers it may be difficult for them to succeed.

Of course TAEN is aware of these issues and is eager to speak to the prime providers that will be delivering the programme. We reckon we have the know how to support them and are confident we can make a difference to their effectiveness with our age cohort.

But that still leaves the economic issues – if the jobs just aren’t there, it is going to be hard work.

But leave the last word to Wallace “There’s no use in prevaricating about the bush. Get on with it.”