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Moral debate aside, government should listen to the evidence on mandatory work schemes

Jenny Gulliford

12 February 2013

Today (12 Feb) Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson were successful in their bid to prove that the government’s back-to-work schemes were legally flawed. Despite early reports, the ruling did not conclude that mandatory back-to-work schemes or sanctions were unlawful or that they counted as ‘forced labour’. However, the ruling does mean that, according to the appellants’ solicitor, Tessa Gregory:

‘Today's judgment sends Iain Duncan Smith back to the drawing board to make fresh regulations which are fair and comply with the court's ruling. Until that time nobody can be lawfully forced to participate in schemes affected such as the Work Programme and the Community Action Programme.’

So, should we be pleased that this ruling may result in fewer sanctions and a softening of the mandatory element of these programmes? There are of course strong moral elements to the debate, yet even if we put these aside for the time being, we are left with a fairly stark picture:  there is little evidence to suggest that making a scheme compulsory improves employment rates, and in some cases there is evidence to suggest that doing so may even be detrimental to a job seeker’s chances.

The government does not currently record the employment rates of jobseekers leaving the majority of back-to-work programmes, apart from the Work Programme which is something of a unique case. The only information we have is in regards to a scheme not affected by this ruling - Mandatory Work Activity - but which operates by similar principles of sanctioning and mandatory attendance. A recent impact assessment of this scheme found that  three to five months after the placement, there was no difference in the number of people claiming benefits between those who had been referred to MWA and those who had not. It stated that ‘a MWA referral had no impact on the likelihood of being employed compared to non-referrals.’

International evidence supports this. Our recent report ‘International Lessons: Youth unemployment in the global context’  showed that Australia’s ‘Work for the Dole’ programme, which requires jobseekers who have been claiming for more than 12 months to undertake a 26 week work experience activity, had a negligible effect. Moreover, the evidence shows that the scheme can actually have an adverse effect on jobseekers, as in many cases it leads them to stop claiming to avoid being forced to undertake work experience, thereby excluding them from potentially beneficial support and encouraging economic inactivity. Others become ‘locked in’ and have less time for job searching. This can lead to a reduced rate of jobseekers exiting unemployment benefits.

However, today’s ruling shouldn’t mean that we ignore the clear benefits of good, meaningful work experience, especially for young people making the transition between education and employment. In the right circumstances, even unpaid work experience can be a useful tool to help people back into work, on condition that it is voluntary, for a set and limited period of time, and that it is both useful and relevant to the individual jobseeker. Our recent work on youth unemployment  identifies the key elements for good work experience. It should involve a variety of tasks, and should ideally be linked to an outcome such as a guaranteed job interview. Those undertaking work experience should also be assigned a mentor and be properly supervised throughout their placement, with adequate training provided. 

Despite the lack of evidence on mandatory work experience or the threat of sanctions, the government plans to continue with the current set of back-to-work programmes. Responding to the ruling, the government stated that it plans to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court and that new legislation implemented today will mean claimants will still be referred to these schemes. Yet with youth unemployment in particular a long-standing and intractable problem, perhaps now it is time for policymakers to start looking at the evidence on what actually works.


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