Labour's Big Idea - will it really work?

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The Independent Online
"A New Deal", "a National Crusade to harness the energy of the whole country", "the One Nation society in action". All these trip lightly off the tongue of Andrew Smith, eyes shining, burning with enthusiasm. He is the minister in charge of the Government's most exciting yet most difficult and expensive project - welfare to work. He has that missionary gleam, as if he can hardly sit still in his chair for the urge to dash into every teenager's bedroom, heave them out from under their duvets and thrust a book, computer mouse or mop into their hands right now.

It was the Big Idea in the election campaign and the star turn in the Budget. All that lies ahead is the implementation, when we shall see if the fine words are matched with a fine programme. It starts next April - not long to put into place a colossal plan to take on 180,000 young people who have been out of work for more than six months and another 15,000 arriving every month thereafter. Does Andrew Smith lie awake at night wondering if this will be Labour's new groundnut scheme? Or by the next election will it have become established as the great missing link between school and work?

The Jeremiahs are already murmuring. Where are the thousands of brilliant new trainers and teachers to provide this "high quality" programme? It'll just be poor-quality YTS all over again. Why make it compulsory, alienating the young instead of inspiring them? Won't employers abuse the pounds 60-a-week job subsidy? "Quality," Andrew Smith keeps saying over and over again, "is the key to everything." He bans anyone from breathing the killer word "scheme". No young person ever again wants to be on a "scheme". No, they will not herded into mass programmes regardless of their skills, wishes and problems. No, no one will be sent on a time-wasting make-work project just to improve the numbers. Nor will the recalcitrant be dragooned into good programmes, sapping the morale of the enthusiastic.

What are the threats to quality in his New Deal? First, the numbers - the need to hit a high target, churning the long-term unemployed off the register for a few months in a quick fix, only to see them return again, re-labelled as short-term unemployed. But the target the Government has set itself - 250,000 into jobs in four years - is relatively easy to reach. Everyone expects it to hit it. That means the pounds 3.5bn should be able to pay for a high-quality service.

The other threat is from the Treasury. Does it want a pay-back? Treasury short-termism, its mania for hard outcome figures, has driven many of the best projects to destruction. Only a few weeks ago, Andrew Smith was claiming that the wonder of welfare-to-work is that it would create a "virtuous cycle" where money would flow back into Treasury coffers for everyone found a job. But good training is expensive. The hard cases - children from care, the homeless, the addicts, the illiterate and depressed - will cost a lot to get back on to their feet. So the best outcome may be awkwardly intangible and certainly not cashable. This is a civic good, not a cash-cow. There was a reassuring hint at a press conference last week that David Blunkett no longer expects his New Deal to make any money, which makes high quality more likely.

If it all works brilliantly, how past Conservative employment ministers will gnash their teeth. For they have thought of all these ideas before, but introduced them in a such a piecemeal muddle that it is highly doubtful that many employment service staff let alone the unemployed could make head or tail of them. For there is a plethora of surprisingly generous schemes already on offer. When I looked into it, I was frankly astounded at what is already there.

If you are currently unemployed, you could be offered a portfolio of no fewer that 22 different nationwide schemes when you walk into a JobCentre. In some areas you might get another four pilot projects as well.

Labour plans a four-month "Gateway" period into its New Deal with an individual mentor to see each person into basic skills programmes, ability tests and job interviews. Now we have a hotch-potch of Job Plan Seminars, Job Review Workshops, Job Search Assistance, Restart, Workwise, One to One - each designed to call the unemployed for interviews and pep-talks at varying stages. But what the system has lacked is a single counsellor designated to the case of each person.

There is already one scheme with a distinctly familiar ring - Workstart, which gives any employer a pounds 60 subsidy for six months to take on someone who is long-term unemployed. So far, this is only a pilot with some 100,000 people, but ministers know research shows disappointing results. Far from employers rushing to abuse it by sacking staff to employ the unemployed instead, companies in areas where it operates have not been keen to try it. That is why Gordon Brown and Blunkett have gone out of their way to shout loud for help from large national companies, with the Chancellor's big breakfast for bosses trying to draw in the top brass. Will the appeal of a One Nation crusade give this scheme the kick-start the Tories never gave it?

The mystery about all these employment schemes is why the Tories hid them under a bushel. Was it ambivalence about daring to admit their own generosity? For instance, why didn't they trumpet the Job Finder's Grant? Anyone going back to work after two years of unemployment gets a cash grant of pounds 200, no questions asked. And where was the publicity for their Work Trials? The unemployed can go on drawing all their benefits for the first 15 days in work, taking the risk out of taking a job if it doesn't work out. Has everyone heard of Job Match - where unemployed people can claim pounds 50 a week cash, non-means-tested, for six months if they take a part-time job? Do they know they can get a pounds 300 training voucher that they can spend on anything, including driving lessons, to make them more employable? And there is a clutch more benefits and bonuses. In other words, a great deal of the most generous and useful parts of Labour's New Deal is already essentially in place. How the Tories bungled it!

What was missing was the crucial ingredient - individual attention to each person. Instead, the employment service was cut back. Providing a counsellor for each young person to follow them through for maybe a year will be expensive, as will all the remedial programmes for the difficult cases.

In the end, how will we judge the success of it all? Partly by word of mouth; young people will know and they will be harsh critics. But the toughest test will come when the economy turns downwards. Launching this kite into a high economic wind, it will fly because so many people are flooding back to work anyway. But if the wind drops in a couple of years and thousands more swell the register, what then? When it will be needed most, will the Government have the nerve to put more money in; or as happened in Sweden, will funds be spread too thin and all that quality seep away? Until then, all the signs are good.