Do international examples show that work activity schemes are doomed to fail?

16 January 2012

Last week 22-year-old Birmingham University graduate Cait Reilly caused a stir by launching judicial review proceedings against the government's plans to introduce a series of 'workfare' programmes.

Ms Reilly claims that she was obligated to carry out two weeks unpaid work at Poundland as part of the sector-based work academy scheme, and has challenged the government on the grounds that the principle of mandatory unpaid work infringes her human rights.

While participation in the sector-based work academy scheme is voluntary, the Department for Work and Pensions does note that once a claimant begins a placement through the scheme, attendance does become compulsory. The Government is also piloting a Mandatory Work Activity programme, which as the name suggests, does require benefit claimants to participate in work schemes.

Having received criticism from some sections of the media, Ms Reilly wrote a column of her own in yesterday's Guardian in defence of her stance.

In it, she claims that the international evidence suggests that similar schemes have failed oversees. Ms Reilly writes: "Similar schemes have not worked in other countries, and there is evidence that coercing people into unpaid work masks rather than solves the unemployment crisis."

So what do international examples tell us about the success or otherwise of work activity programmes?

Under the last Government, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) took a look at just this, focussing in particular on two examples: the 'Work for the Dole' programme in place in Australia and the Community Employment Innovation Project (CEIP) run in Nova Scotia, Canada.

This found that the international evidence was less conclusive about their inefficiency.

The Australian example, according to the DWP, received mixed reviews. It notes: "Opinion on whether Work for the Dole is effective differs."

The criticisms levelled against it are "that it reduces worksearch and so makes it less likely that someone will get a job; that it does not increase an individual's employability; and that it stigmatises the long-term unemployed." However the DWP also note that the Australian Government claims that it has helped engender a working culture among jobseekers.

When it comes to Nova Scotia, however, the DWP notes that "research from this suggests that there has been a significant positive impact on employment outcomes for people who participated."

The research referenced was conducted by Canada's Social Research and Development Corporation (SRDC), who evaluated the scheme's outcomes.

In its final evaluation, the SRDC found that the programme helped to maintain higher employment rates during its three year operation, although these benefits were not maintained afterwards, meaning that Ms Reilly could be right that the scheme merely 'masked' the underlying problem.

Nevertheless, the study did find that the work programme provided "modest improvements in participants' job quality, skills, and attitudes towards work."

However we should strike a note of caution before reading too much into these findings. The authors of the research themselves stressed that "results from CEIP cannot be generalized to mandatory work programs."

This is because there are significant differences between the scheme implemented in Nova Scotia and those now being piloted in the UK, not least among which is that it is a voluntary programme and participants were paid a wage in the CEIP in place of their benefit entitlement.

So while there does seem to be some evidence from abroad to suggest that work placement schemes can be beneficial to participants' employment prospects, questions do remain over how useful an indicator these are for predicting outcomes to the UK scheme.

Update: It has been pointed out to Full Fact that the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University conducted further research for the DWP on workfare in 2008, and concluded that: "There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers."

Furthermore, the study suggested that workfare schemes were least effective at times of high unemployment, although it does conceded that "there are few systematic evaluations that isolate the impact of workfare from other elements of welfare-to-work programmes." While the report doesn't consider the Nova Scotia example specifically (focussing instead on another Canadian province, Ontario), it does give an interesting counterpoint to the SRDC work.

Update 2 (7/2/2012): The headline of this article has been amended from "Workfare programmes: do international examples show that it's doomed to fail" after two readers raised concerns about the term "workfare", which they felt could refer to mandatory schemes only. To clarify, this article considers examples of both mandatory and voluntary work placement schemes. As we note above, given the differences between these oversees schemes and those proposed for the UK, readers should be cautious about applying the international findings to the British equivalents.

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