Work Programme misses the point

Work Programme misses the point: We need to create more jobs says Colin Crooks

Deborah Orr writes (Guardian Comment 24th February 2012) powerfully about the current furore over the Work Programme.  She has grasped the immense challenges that people who have been unemployed for a long time face.  She has also adroitly identified one of the weaknesses of the government’s scheme.  Her metaphor that pushing a steady stream of free to employ people onto the job market is like “fighting fire with gasoline” sums it up well.

Overall though, Orr and the other commentators I have read have missed the main point.  Tactically her “modest proposal” that the state should support the employment of “specialist personnel staff” to recruit people from these troubled backgrounds gets closer to the issue.  (As I read that, I thought she was describing social enterprises; as that in many cases is what they already do – without funding!)  Others have suggested modifications to the scheme and more direct payments to the charities and employers who are creating the jobs.  All of these will no doubt help in some small way.  The fact is that even with all the changes, such market based solutions will only help those that are actually quite employable to get a job in a tough market.  They are very unlikely to help those in extreme poverty or long term unemployment.  The Work Programme misses the point.

The real challenge is that there are not enough jobs.  And the fact that the jobs shortage is extremely acute in particular areas.  The shortfall is not a few hundred thousand but actually more like 5 million.  Professor Paul Gregg, a former Government advisor to the Treasury, and now with Bath University’s Department of Social & Policy Sciences has clearly identified the scale of the problem and the people who are affected by it.  The majority of people in long-term unemployment live in areas of extreme deprivation with many other people in a similar situation.  The actual unemployment rate in such places can be 3, 4 or even 5 times that of the national average.  They tend to be low skilled and in many cases functionally illiterate.

Creating jobs of any sort in Tesco or elsewhere is not going to impact on these pockets of intense unemployment and low skill.  In the main, such companies don’t have a presence in these areas but even if they did they end up sucking more money out of such a community that they put back in.  No, what is needed is an intense investment in local community businesses that operate in these deprived areas and that can create local work for local people.  They have the skills and empathy to help those most in need of it.  This will need a change of approach by local authorities and by central government on how they procure work and it will need a change of attitude from large corporations but it can be done.

Instead of tinkering around the edges we need to recognise the real problem that we face is the huge levels of concentrated worklessness.  We need also to acknowledge that the best solution to such a problem is to back the community and the social enterprises within it.