Andrew Hebden: Signs point to upturn for scheme

There's been a welcome glut of good news about the economy recently, but one negative statistic remains stubbornly too high

Youth unemployment in the North East is to be tackled
Youth unemployment figures remain high

There's been a welcome glut of good news about the economy recently, but one negative statistic remains stubbornly too high.

Of all the evils of an economic downturn, none is more damaging than unemployment. Youth unemployment is particularly abhorrent, with plentiful evidence to suggest that the long-term scars of a period of worklessness early in life can last many years.

So while the pick-up in the economy we think we are beginning to see will ultimately help bring down the unemployment numbers, it’s also important that other efforts to tackle this problem are effective.

The Work Programme has had a tough time over the past two years. Since the back-to-work scheme was launched in 2011 it has been dogged by confusion and misunderstanding, attacked for under-performing and written-off as a failure by many.

But with the second set of official Work Programme performance statistics released last week, a much more positive picture emerges. It has helped 321,000 long-term unemployed people start a job and 132,000 stay in work for at least six months, or three months for the hardest to help (a job outcome). That’s some feat.

Remember, too, that most jobseekers on the scheme have been out of work for at least a year.

It’s particularly encouraging to see such large numbers who joined the programme in 2011 and early 2012 doing well. The data shows that a fifth of those referred to the scheme in June 2011 have reached the “job outcome” point. In particular, more young people are finding work the longer they are on the programme.

The data shows that performance has improved significantly in the programme’s second year compared with the first. The CBI expects this trend continue and accelerate.

The programme’s performance in supporting employment and support allowance (ESA) jobseekers has not been as good as expected. We should remember, though, that many of these people are called the “hardest to help” for a reason – they often have significant barriers to work, including health problems.

Large numbers of ESA jobseekers are not expected to find work for at least 12 months after joining the programme. They require intensive support and investment and it’s only over time that the greatest gains will be realised.

Of course there is always more that can be done. There are challenges, but the Work Programme is starting to deliver. Things are looking up, and all of us should welcome that.

:: Andrew Hebden is assistant director of the CBI North East


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