Mandatory work: if we believe in evidence-based policy it’s probably best to pay attention to the evidence

Four months ago, when the political row over ‘workfare’ was at its peak, I wrote here on LibDemVoice that liberals needed to progress the debate beyond ‘the simple and simplistic ‘left/right’ attitudes currently on display, and start grappling with how best we can empower the individual to make the best of their own lives — including, and especially, those who appear to have settled for a life on benefits, and reject all other offers of help.’

Avoiding dogma, embracing evidence

Key to this, I suggested, would be avoiding the dogmatic approaches of the Tories — who appear to believe that every single long-term unemployed is a feckless, work-shy benefit dependent who just needs to jolly well pull their socks up — and of Labour — who seem to think every single private enterprise is on a ruthless mission to exploit the most vulnerable in society. Instead we should root our liberal approach in evidence:

To be clear, I’m not advocating the ‘workfare’ programme in its current form. Nor am I saying that liberals should be supporting wholesale mandatory ‘workfare’ programmes. The evidence to date is far too weak for us cheerfully to approve compulsion of citizens to take on unpaid work ‘for their own good’. But I would not be against pilot programmes to test and properly evaluate different initiatives, including those which do require mandatory, time-limited work placements for those whose CVs otherwise makes them unemployable. We would then have a much better idea of what is most likely to work.

To its credit, the Department for Work & Pensions commissioned — and published — an independent study of its mandatory work activity (MWA) programme this week. Unfortunately for the Government the study contained unhelpful news:

The government’s peer-reviewed study concluded that being referred by jobcentre managers to mandatory unpaid work for 30 hours a week was good at pushing people off jobseeker’s allowance in the short term. However, over a three to five-month period, those who did not eventually start mandatory work were more likely to return to out-of-work benefits when compared with those who had never been referred in the first place.

Overall, out of those being referred, there was no positive or negative effect on benefit claims between the different groups which were compared. DWP researchers said this total of people returning to benefits included a 3% increase in those claiming employment support allowance, a benefit given to those people suffering with serious health problems.

The study, which compared the outcomes of more than 3,000 MWA referrals and 125,000 non-referred jobseekers, also concluded that the scheme had zero effect in helping people get a job.

The study was led by the respected National Institute for Economic and Social Research, and reported in more detail on its director Jonathan Portes’s blog here.

Ignoring evidence, embracing dogma

And the Government’s response to this evidence? It’s expanded the scheme its own study concluded was failing to deliver any real benefit, with Conservative minister for employment Chris Grayling announcing:

I am also pleased to announce the Government has decided to expand the Mandatory Work Activity scheme. The expansion will enable Jobcentre Plus to make between 60,000 and 70,000 referrals to Mandatory Work Activity each year, based on the current experience of the scheme, at a cost of an additional £5 million per annum. This decision has been taken as the result of careful consideration of the positive impacts demonstrated within the Impact Assessment.

Liberals tend to be rational sceptics, who pride themselves on listening to, and respecting, evidence. It was, after all, that great liberal JM Keynes who famously declared, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Equally, there are some liberals who look a little askance at placing too much emphasis on evidence-based policy, regarding it suspiciously as an ideological cop-out which elevates faceless bureaucracy above genuine belief.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem in squaring this circle. Liberalism is about empowering the individual and confronting vested interests: that’s my philosophy. But there are of course a myriad of ways in which such a philosophy might be put into effect: evidence enables us to choose the most effective policy for realising that liberal philosophy.

Evidence and the ability to process it and adapt to its findings is what separates the ideological from the dogmatic politician. In politics, though, it’s so often easier to stick with dogmatism than to admit you’re wrong and try a new approach to achieve your desired outcome. The DWP, it seems, is more at home with dogmatism than evidence.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • mike cobley 16th Jun '12 - 4:46pm

    There is one huge aspect to this issue which no-one has addressed, and its this – what do we believe should be the purpose of the welfare/benefits system? Should it be a system which keeps ordinary people from starving in the streets, from the cruelties of being powerless in the face of crises, in short from avoidable suffering? Or do we believe that welfare is a justification for trying to alter claimant behaviour, by various degrees of coercion?


  • It’s a difficult one,. Welfare is so heavily propagandised against that it it’s easy to forget that its has expanded because the markets failed. The only reason we have relative poverty instead of real poverty is the safety net it provides.
    The other thing and the thing that bothers me most is that the mandatory work idea is being used on sections of the disabled public , notably those with mental health issues
    As for Labour. They were pretty nasty to the disadvantaged in power, planned to be nearly nasty as the Tories if reelected and are being deceitful on the issue now, But it’s nice to know some Lib Dems are still uncomfortable with what the Coalition is doing.

  • Just a word of warning, Stephen! “Evidence based policy” is everybody’s mantra these days. But not all “evidence” carries the same weight, and often those steeped in an overall understanding of a subject can quote you more truth from a so-called anecdotal base than can someone blindly taking a dogmatic stance and quoting you the studies they wish to select.

    The Blairite mantra “we do what works” is another chimera. Question – what does it achieve, and under what circumstances? Yes, we can say for definite that if dogmatic assumptions are made, and searches for studies which meet those assumptions are carried out, that is hardly objective evidence – as no doubt would be the case in the example you give. Howevr, Lib Dems are not very discriminating in the evidence they use on occasion, and I think this is an area we should be tightening up our act.

  • You use the term “workfare” but I understood that as people having to contribute to society while claiming benefits. As I understand the example I have heard about this is an opportunity to do work for companies, work that if outside the scheme would have to be paid for by those companies. The companies get paid for looking after these people and giving them a chance of saying they have done some casual unskilled work although they couldn’t convince anyone to pay them. There is no direct benefit to the community that “workfare” often implies, only the possible indirect benefit of experience getting up on the days of the unpaid work. Possibly not that compelling at a job interview, but the evidence would obviously be very useful.
    I can see the logic of other “coercive ” schemes if not their moral justification but this is a cheap version that does not appear to be fit for purpose. It still costs that state but it’s only benefit is the economic stimulus of almost free instilled casual labour.

  • patricia roche 17th Jun '12 - 12:05am

    Glen,if some lib dems are uncomfortable, what are they doing about it. Pat

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Jun '12 - 10:09am

    “‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’”

    Though this has long been one of my favourite quotes (ever since I heard Neil Kinnock use it to justify some u-turn back in the ’80s), I’m afraid to tell you that it appears to be apocryphal. Nobody has ever turned up a primary source confirming that Keynes ever said it (though he said a few things that were vaguely similar).

  • I just love the idea that all small businesses need to succeed is ‘free’ labour. I am not against ‘workfare’ per se but there are far more downsides than up.
    The benefit system can’t cope with those who leave and shortly return; it takes weeks to sort out payments, umpteen forms and, in the meantime “NO BENEFITS”.

  • Stuart – You are right, but apparently a lot of Keynes quotes came from lectures which were then passed around by word-of-mouth. So apocryphal but I don’t think we can rule it out.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jun '12 - 4:13pm

    Evidence-basing is fine. But evidence has to be selected, weighed, validated, interpreted, and contectualized. All of these processes privide opportunities for pre-judgment to creep in.

    The study claimed that the scheme has “had zero effect in helping people get a job”. But does the scheme have other benefits? And are the practical alternatives better or worse?

  • Very happy to see more discussion on this.
    It is clear that mandatory work, and other forced, unpaid work schemes do not improve outcomes. This has been shown in the US, Australia, and now the UK.
    Time for Liberal Democrats to stop supporting this nasty scheme, and to continue with policies that make work pay,

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