Work for your benefit, again

There’s not much new to say about George Osborne’s announcement, for the party faithful, that people on benefits will be required to ‘work for their benefit’.  That, after all, is the name of the scheme in Labour’s Welfare Reform Act, currently attached to a range of schemes including the Work Programme, Mandatory Work Activity, the New Enterprise Allowance,sector-based Work Academies and Skills Conditionality.

The announcement relates to people who are on JSA for more than two years.  This number is creeping up, of course, and currently it stands at just over 210,000.  From the NOMIS figures it’s possible to identify how many people have been on benefits long term.  The clamaint count stood in August (slightly short) at 1,386,775 people.  Of those, 970,520 had been unemployed for less that a year.  210,685 have been on JSA for two years or more.  69,050 have been on JSA for three years or more.  After four years, it is 24,900.  After 5 years, it is 9,400 – nearly double what it was three years ago, but still far less than most people imagine.

The difference between year 2 and year 3 is worth noting.  Two thirds of people who have been unemployed for two years will not be claiming benefits a year later.  That raises an obvious question – are the people who are subject to work schemes really more likely to work as a result?  – and the answer, as Jonathan Portes has consistently argued, seems to be: no.

How sanctions can make people less likely to work

It often happens that the people I talk to can tell me far more than I can tell them, and today was another of those days: I was discussing welfare reform with a group of specialists on work and employability support.  People who don’t have a settled way of life are not outstandingly employable, and to get them to the point where they stand a chance of holding down a job,  the first task is to make sure that they can have a regular lifestyle.   However, claimants are also liable to routinely sanctions when they fail to comply with DWP instructions, to turn up to meetings, or to take the actions that are required of them.  Predictably,  people who don’t have a settled way of life aren’t very good at jumping through the hoops or complying with instructions, and it follows that they’re particularly likely to be sanctioned.  The most immediate effect of a sanction is that the rent doesn’t get paid; and if a claimant gets evicted, everything else necessary for employability collapses.  So the agencies who are supporting the claimants have to spend their time trying to save people from being evicted, and that – rather than positive support – is where their effort is currently focused.  The effect of current policy in such cases is not then to encourage people into work, but to destroy any reasonable prospect that they might be employed in the foreseeable future.

Sanctions: a disgrace to us all

I received this note yesterday from someone who had seen a posting I made last March about Jobcentre Plus sanctions.  I have not clicked ‘approve comment’, for two reasons: one is that it would reveal the identity of the person who sent it (I have written to her to check whether this is what she intended), the other that the format of the blog does tend to bury the comments made on older posts, and this is much too important.  This is what she wrote:

i am a single parent with a daughter of 8 and to have had a sanction put on my jsa benefit for failing to attend a tomorrows peoples appointment they say i had. The only appointment imissed well didnt really miss just got there late due to taking child to school then i had to walk 3 miles as didnt have bus fare only to be left standing outside in cold while they discussed what to do which ended with me being sent away and informed that another letter would be sent to me. i then had notice in post that my JSA would be sanctioned from 10/05/13 until 10/08/13 and i would get nothing. i only heard about a hardship allowance i could try and claim but as of yet heard nor received any kind of help wot so ever, and the job centre advisors just seem to fob me off they have been of no help wot so ever plus i still havnt had any information regarding my reconsideration letter ive sent.

The rules governing these sanctions are fairly new. For low-level offences, such as missing an interview, the usual sanction for a first offence is four weeks; for a second offence in the same year it is thirteen weeks. ‘Tomorrow’s People’ is a part of the Work Programme, and this interview may have been part of mandatory work activity, which also carries a 13 week sanction. I am not sure of the details here – whether this is a breach of mandatory conditions, whether my correspondent has been given a previous sanction, or whether she has been penalised further for something said after she arrived – but I do not think that any of those issues is what matters here. There are lots of opportunities to incur a 13 week sanction. As far as I can tell, what has been done in this case is most probably what the rules say ought to be done. And the fact is that this person has had her benefit stopped for three months for the offence of being too poor to afford her bus fare.

In the past, people studying social policy could look in bemused distaste at the practices of the Victorian Poor Law. People were treated then with contempt and dehumanised in accordance with accepted public practice. We can now be reasonably sure that future generations will look back at our current policies with the same sense of horror. I know, as a citizen and a taxpayer, that this is done in my name, and I am ashamed.

New figures on the Work Programme

The DWP has released a slew of new figures on the Work Programme, taking the story up to March.  The main statistical release is lengthy, and difficult to interpret;  the headline figure is that job outcomes, and outcome payments, have improved to something like 11-13% of referrals, depending on the gloss that’s put on it.  There is helpful coverage from a Financial Times blog.  Some newspapers – who are usually the Government’s supporters – have been fairly scathing: the Daily Mail complains that this has costed £40,000 a job,  the Telegraph that this has been worse than doing nothing.

There is also an informative (and shorter) Excel spreadsheet which lists the actual numbers of ‘Job Outcome Payments’.  The payments fall due when a claimant has been in work for 3 or 6 months, depending on the category.  In the spreadsheet, it emerges that there have been 139,000 payments.  However, more than 132,000 of them were in three categories: JSA 18 to 24, JSA 25 and over, and JSA early entrants.  The rest – less than 7000 nationally – were mainly on ESA or transferred from Incapacity Benefit.

The progress relating to those groups generally falls below the target figures at which providers get paid.  The longer report explains that while results for year 2 have been better than for year 1, “In this second financial year (April 2012 – March 2013) the contractual performance level for the JSA 18 to 24, JSA 25 and over and ESA new customers Payment Groups were 31.9%, 27.3% and 5.3% respectively. This was against a Minimum Performance Level of 33%, 27.5% and 16.5% for each group respectively.” That might sound as if the programme is coming close to targets, but the situation is worse than that; the figures relating to ESA, including people who have volunteered to be supported into work, show an almost complete failure to make a positive contribution in relation to people who might be considered more difficult to place.

Some more benefit stats on longer-term claims

Having been sucked in to the DWP page hosting ‘ad hoc analyses’, I’ve also been looking at an April paper on long-term benefit receipt. It’s very unusual for people who are unemployed to be continuously on benefit for long periods, but some people are frequent claimants, moving into and out of work – it’s an intrinsic part of the ‘flexible labour markets’ that the government is so keen to encourage. The presentation of the figures is confusing – all “out of work” benefits are lumped together and specific benefits are represented as percentages of percentages.

What the paper seems to show, however, is first that the numbers of people who have been claiming for at least three years of the last four is fairly static – 2.47 million in 2010, 2.51 million in 2012.

Second, most of the people who are on benefits for three out of four years are incapable of work, and it is not reasonable to expect them to. (That isn’t me saying so; it’s the specification in the statute.) That accounts for 1.7 million of the 2.5 million.

Third, the proportions of people who are unemployed seem to be growing – but this probably says more about the operation of the benefit system than it does about the client group. People are being increasingly defined as falling in a new sub-category of benefits, consisting of JSA, Income Support for Lone Parents and people with incapacities in the work-related activity group – evidently the people who the government wants to target for a return to work. That category has grown from 698,000 people in 2010 to 1,008,000 in 2012 – an increase of over 44% in two years.

1.6 million referrals for sanction in a year

The delayed figures on Jobcentre Plus sanctions on JSA claimants have been released. The scale and reach of the sanctions is staggering. There were 1,593,800 referrals made in the last 12 months for which figures are available. Only half that number (778,000, as David Webster has already posted in comments) led to ‘adverse decisions’ made against the claimant, but a further 337,000 decisions were ‘reserved’ because the claimant left benefit before a decision to cut payments could be imposed. To put this in perspective, the estimated caseload of claimants of JSA in 2012 was just over 1.5 million. It seems that we have turned a system that was supposed to protect people during spells of unemployment into a model where instead claimants are routinely subjected to threats.

Jobcentre sanctions

The Guardian reported yesterday that Jobcentres are being set targets for the imposition of sanctions, despite assurances to Parliament that no such targets existed.  Yesterday I was at a forum where we were told about  examples of sanctions in Clydebank, including

  • a claimant sanctioned for one month for confessing that he had not looked for work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day;
  • a claimant sanctioned for a month for appearing five minutes late for interview;
  • a claimant sanctioned because the firm he had been referred to had not received a referral and sent him straight back to the Jobcentre to check.

I’ve not done well with the DWP  tabtool on this topic and in the process of trying to milk the statistics I’ve ended up with more on the floor than in the bucket.   David Webster’s helpful comments, below, explain about where to find the statistics I missed.

Geology? Don't waste your time

Cait Reilly is a geology graduate who thought that her unpaid work in a museum was more likely to get her a job than an unpaid job stacking shelves in Poundland. Iain Duncan Smith’s response: geology is over-rated.

“Next time someone goes in – one of these smart people who say there’s something wrong with this – they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question: when they can’t find the food on the shelves, who is more important – them, the geologist, or the person that stacked the shelves?”

This will no doubt be a salutary corrective to the oil and gas industry, who have allowed themselves to be distracted from their critical need for more shelf-stackers and inveigled into wasting money on all those people messing around with geosciences.

Jeremy Bentham argued that the way to stop people claiming poor relief was to make it unpleasant; he also wrote that pushpin is as good as poetry. His stuffed body still has voting rights at University College London and, it seems, his spirit lives on.

Three generations who have never worked

A new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gives a recognisably faithful picture of the situation of workless people in deprived communities. It shows, yet again, that the myth about “three generations who have never worked” is drivel. The researchers searched “doggedly” in areas of high unemployment for anyone to fit the criteria, and there wasn’t anyone. I’m not surprised, because that’s exactly what the previous longitudinal studies, going back to 1950s, have found: see e.g. Atkinson et al (1983) Parents and children, or Kolvin et al (1990) Continuities of deprivation.

Bad news for the Work Programme

Despite a bullish report from the DWP, the Work Programme appears to be failing. This is not a surprise. The Office for Government Commerce had expressed doubts about the DWP’s ability to manage this kind of contract effectively. Comments from the National Audit Office in relation to Pathways to Work suggested that private contractors had not appreciated the difficulty of dealing with the client group, that the effect of out-sourcing and sub-contracting had been to reduce accountability and control, and that Jobcentre Plus actually did the job better. (Hardly anyone, in the DWP’s outcome figures, is coming off ESA and into work.) Jonathan Portes was suggesting six months ago that the Work Programme was appearing to slow down the rate at which people got back to work. That impression seems to be supported by the headline figures, which show that the Work Programme produced worse outcomes than doing nothing.

The failure of the programme rests, not just in its management, but in its basic concept. Improving employability does not, and can not, make jobs; it can only improve the relative position of participants in competition with others. The main way through the problem is to stimulate the demand – by injecting resources into the economy, by commissioning work, or by creating jobs. The government has set its face against all three approaches.