"Extremely poor." That’s the damning assessment from a committee of cross party MPs of the government’s flagship, multi-billion pound Work Programme to get the long term unemployed back to work.
But is the Programme failing as a result of poor communication and marketing to employers, without which it cannot hope to succeed?
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that during the first 14 months of the Work Programme, to last July, only 3.6% of claimants on the scheme moved off benefits into sustained employment.
To put that in context, that equates to less than a third of the 11.9% that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had predicted.
It’s also actually below the official estimate of what would have happened without spending billions on the Work Programme – implying that the Programme has actually cost jobs rather than created them.
"It is shocking that of the 9,500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to providers, only 20 people have been placed in a job that has lasted three months, while the poorest-performing provider did not manage to place a single person in the under-25 category into a job lasting six months," raged PAC chairman Margaret Hodge.
Not one of the 18 providers has met its contractual targets and their performance "varies wildly", so the DWP should take action against those which are failing, according to the PAC.
Hodge also criticised the DWP for publishing unvalidated data from a trade body representing Work Programme providers, saying: "This is just not on."
Picking a fight
A DWP spokesman said: "This report paints a skewed picture. More than 200,000 people have moved off benefits and into a job thanks to the Work Programme. It is making a real difference to tens of thousands of the hardest to help jobseekers. Long-term unemployment fell by 15,000 in the latest quarter.
"The Work Programme gives support to claimants for two years and it hasn’t even been running that long yet, so it’s still early days. We know the performance of our providers is improving."
The DWP appears ready to pick a fight with the PAC, openly contesting its claim that that only 3.6% of people referred to the Work Programme moved off benefit and into work. "This claim is simply wrong," stated the DWP. "More than 200,000 participants have already got into work. These comments are very disappointing and are misleading the public about the Work Programme."
Where are the employers?
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) highlighted a significant omission in the PAC report: no mention of employers and their reactions to the scheme. This may be telling, suggests CIPD.
“The Work Programme has attracted a lot of harsh criticism, and this report is no exception," noted CIPD CEO Peter Cheese. "However, it is sad and telling that the report makes no mention of employers, one of the most important stakeholders involved in the scheme.
"Those employers who are engaging with the Work Programme, and similar initiatives of their own to assist the long-term unemployed, do so because they recognise that they have a responsibility for ensuring the labour market is accessible to people who may not have been engaged in it for some time."
CIPD is calling on the government to focus on raising the profile of the Work Programme to increase awareness of it and its potential.
“Our research suggests that there is more that can be done by Government and providers of the Work Programme to increase awareness amongst employers of its existence and the benefits it can bring," said Cheese. "Only half (51%) of employers reported that they were aware of the scheme in a survey conducted in the summer of 2012.
"We’re committed to working with Government to help increase awareness of the Work Programme, through communications with our members. But increasing take-up is a challenge against a backdrop of constant negative coverage of what could be a valuable and important programme – for business, society and the economy.”
For its part, the employer’s organisation the CBI cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the success or otherwise of the Work Programme.
“The initial work programme results were disappointing, but the statistics represent a snapshot during the roll-out of the scheme and should be viewed in this light," said Katja Hall, CBI Chief Policy Director. "The programme is in its infancy and gains will come over the longer-term.
“Providers are paid by results and so are incentivised to improve performance. But to deliver the best outcomes we also need to ensure that they are working closely with local authorities, FE colleges and businesses.
“As the PAC highlights, it’s important that statistics on the programme are set in context and explained clearly to ensure a rounded assessment of performance can be made.”