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For the majority of onlookers, it’s frankly hard to tell.  The programme has been repeatedly used as a political football. The government lauds it as its flagship payment by results scheme, at the vanguard of public service reform. The opposition, still smarting from the government panning of its Future Jobs Fund and Flexible New Deal, brands it a dismal failure.  The media, not particularly interested in interpreting complex figures, goes with the negative headlines – after all it’s always easier to tell a bad news story.

The truth behind the headlines is inevitably more complex.   Industry figures show that, to date, 321,000 long term unemployed people have had a job through the scheme.   For those who have been on the programme for at least a year, 33 per cent have found a job to date. This is an industry success story. Providers implemented the scheme at record speed and have achieved despite the far poorer economic backdrop and tight financial margins.  

Look beneath the topline figures and a more nuanced picture shows through. The Work Programme is performing particularly well for young people.  Forty five per cent of the long term unemployed 18 to 25s have had a job through the programme, rising to 49 per cent of those who have been on the scheme the longest.  It now seems fair to assume that well over half of young people referred to the Work Programme will get into employment by the time the programme has finished.

However, getting those on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) into work is proving more of a challenge, with about 15 per cent of those who have been on the programme the longest moving into work so far.   It looks as if around a quarter of these jobseekers have been out of work for at least 11 years, with many out of work far longer.  Unsurprisingly, there are significant health needs and skills barriers, with lack of confidence and work experience all an issue. 

It would be easy as an industry to come up with a list of mitigating circumstances.  However, we think it is in the public interest to say that the Work Programme is working, but it can’t alone solve all society’s ills.   It’s going to need a concentrated effort by many agencies and yes, a cool hard look at the overall resources available, to achieve a step change in performance.

So is it time for judgement on the Work Programme?  Well, no, not yet.  To use a hackneyed phrase, this is a marathon not a sprint. These are five year contracts and performance will build and build.  But two years in the industry does have, for the first time, sufficient performance and demographic information to know what’s working and what isn’t and to have that discussion, away from the political headlines, with government.