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Ian Brinkley
Economic Advisor
Ian Brinkley

Will workfare work?

Authors: Ian Brinkley Ian Brinkley

09 November 2010

The government’s latest proposals to encourage the unemployed back to work have proved controversial, attracting criticism from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. What seems to be proposed is that some long term unemployed will be required to perform “voluntary” work if they want to keep their benefits.

The thinking behind the scheme is a little hard to follow as the message from government is muddled.  To some audiences, it is forcing “lifestyle” claimants to work for their benefit for a period of time to encourage them to get a proper job. To other audiences, ministers stress the value of providing people with work disciplines and experience that will improve their chances of finding work.

The idea that the long term unemployed should do some socially useful work is not new. Successive governments ran such schemes in the 1980s and 1990s. This version is harsher, in that previous schemes paid claimants a little more than benefit, whereas the new scheme is a more pure version of workfare (working for benefits).

The experience of these schemes in helping the unemployed find work is not encouraging. They were low cost and low quality, offering little that a prospective employer would value. Worse, they may have made it harder for the long term unemployed to find work because people on the schemes were not actively looking for work. It is unlikely the new regime will have any more success than its predecessors.

The schemes' effectiveness as an additional punitive measure remains to be seen. Whether it was necessary is however open to question. Successive governments have reformed the unemployed benefits system and public employment services so that they work much better than in the past. As a result, long term unemployment among claimants has been much lower than in previous recessions and throughout the recession flows from the claimant count to work have been high. There is little to suggest that where suitable jobs are available, claimant unemployed are failing to take them.

What is still uncertain is what scale the government thinks the scheme will operate at. There is therefore no indication of what the likely cost of the scheme will be. There were 266,000 who had claimed benefits for more than 12 months in September 2010, about 18 per cent of all claimants. Putting all these claimants on the scheme would be challenging. The number claiming for two years or more was 52,000 or 3.5 per cent of all claimants. If people in the latter category are a high priority, the numbers become more manageable. If the scheme is limited to the genuinely uncooperative, then the likely numbers will be significantly lower.

Moreover, the scheme requires willing partners to provide placements. Many organisations might be willing to support a return to work scheme, but will be much more reluctant if a scheme is perceived as punitive. Organisations under pressure themselves will be reluctant to cope with a mixture of the desperate, the resentful, the disengaged, and the disruptive.

The evidence is that what works is good quality, well focused individualised support for job search; provision of good quality relevant training; and work placements that as far as possible resemble “real” jobs. It remains to be seen whether the expected White Paper on welfare reform contains significant improvements in these areas.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)


09 Jun 2011 5:31PM

I've been forced to undertake workfare and it is utterly demoralising, both for myself and for the people who I was working with. As an introduction to and an approximation of paid work it is totally ineffective since it provides none of the benefits associated with having a job, namely a wage, a sense of community and belonging, a chance to improve your circumstances, opportunities for training and further education, a positive self-image, status and acceptance in society...and justice. It is just so wrong.