The government's Work Programme relies heavily on FE providers to help get unemployed people get back into work by equipping them with the skills they need. But the flagship scheme - expected to cost between #163;3 billion and #163;5 billion over a five-year period - was accused last week of being an expensive flop.
The Public Accounts Committee revealed that between June 2011 and July 2012 just 3.6 per cent of claimants on the programme moved off benefits and into sustained employment. This was less than a third of the Department for Work and Pensions' own target and, according to the committee's report, was "well below what would have happened if there had been no Work Programme running at all".
Most significantly for the independent learning providers engaged in the programme, the report reiterated their repeatedly voiced concerns about the "hardest to help" claimants.
In 2011, Paul Warner, director of employment and skills at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), told TES that the programme's tough targets were deterring providers from taking on claimants receiving employment support allowance - those with a limited capability for work because of a health condition or disability.
While these claimants are more lucrative - providers stand to receive more than #163;13,000 for each of these individuals they help into work, compared with just over #163;4,000 for the 18- to 24-year-olds on jobseeker's allowance - many have deemed the consequences of failure to be too great. Clients must remain in work for 18 months before providers receive the full amount of funding, and providers have often been reluctant to take on those who need the most assistance to get back into work because of the increased risk of missing out on funding and of ending up with lower success rates.
This attitude has been picked up in the committee's report. "The difference between actual and expected performance is greatest for those claimants considered the hardest to help, including in particular claimants with disabilities," it says. "The Department's own evaluation suggests that these claimants have been receiving a poor service from providers."
Of the 18 providers the committee looked at, none had met its contractual targets and performance was found to have differed "wildly". The report attributes this to "their different approaches and different levels of competence". As a result, it says, there is a "high risk" that one or more providers could have their contracts cancelled, or even go out of business.
A spokesman for the AELP said the report was based on data "from the programme's early days, whereas more recent data is showing a steady improvement".
"The funding system incentivises providers to support individuals for anything up to two years in sustainable employment in order to qualify for full payment, so the taxpayer is getting better value than under previous welfare-to-work schemes," he added.