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Is the Demise of This Failed Programme Austerity's Silver Lining?

30/12/2015 23:46 GMT | Updated 30/12/2016 10:12 GMT

'Help to Work' always felt like a singularly inappropriate name for a scheme which had the express intention of "stepping up the pressure" on the long-term unemployed, rather than actually helping them into work.

The programme, which is compulsory for jobseekers who finish a two-year stint on the Tories' flagship Work Programme without having found a job, was introduced in April 2014. This accounts for a large majority of the people who go the Work Programme, which itself has a success rate of less than 30%. In fact, you're more likely to get sanctioned on the Work Programme than you are to get a job!

The most prominent - and by far the most controversial - part of 'Help to Work' essentially forces people to take unpaid work placements as a condition of receiving their benefits.

In case this sounds in any way like a constructive way of helping the long-term jobless, I should be clear that we aren't talking about your traditional work experience placement here. The government has never really even tried to pretend as much. In fact their own description of the scheme said that it was likely to involve people "clearing up litter or graffiti in their local areas".

So how helpful has 'Help to Work' actually been? Not very. In fact, figures released for the first time just a few days before Christmas showed that, of the 35,390 people that have started a "community work placement" since joining the scheme, a mere 1,670 have moved into sustained work as a result. That's a success rate of 4.7%, which even by this government's standards is shockingly poor.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about this programme is that it ever even got off the ground in the first place. The DWP is not exactly known for paying close attention to the evidence for a policy's effectiveness before adopting it. But in this case, they actually did run a pilot study the year before 'Help to Work' was introduced.

Not only that, but ministers also commissioned an independent evaluation of the pilot, leading to a 131-page report which concluded that there was no real difference in the numbers moving into work between those forced to do unpaid work placements and those in a control group where exactly nothing was done.

Despite the fact that the government saw fit to invest in both a trial of the scheme and an independent review, they evidently didn't think that either was worth paying the slightest bit of attention to.

'Help to Work' went ahead as planned, at a cost of around £200million a year, with the government setting what with hindsight was a ludicrously over-optimistic target for 15% of participants to move into work.

I can think of no other government department that would get away with considering a 15% success rate to be a win, but clearly the DWP is operating under its own set of rules. Which, with an actual success rate of just 4.7%, it isn't sticking to in any case.

But for how much longer? In last month's Spending Review, by way of a barely-noticed announcement which was not mentioned in Osborne's speech but was tucked away on page 89 of the blue book, the government quietly performed a major u-turn on compulsory work placements. This part of the 'Help to Work' scheme will now, therefore, come to an early and ignominious end next year.

Finding a silver lining in the Tories' relentless onslaught of cuts is never an easy task. But in choosing to abandon this cruel and ineffective policy, George Osborne may have provided a rare glimpse of austerity's sunnier side. It seems that at least the Chancellor, if not the Work and Pensions Secretary, knows when he is being asked to throw good money after bad.