Labour’s Ready to Work plan: good idea, not sure about the details

At their party conference yesterday, Labour announced a plan, labelled Ready to Work, to give long-term unemployed young people the chance of six months’ work on environmental and community projects.

It’s a good idea, in essence. This kind of work offer helps keep people out of the despondency that unemployment can engender, and helps them acquire work skills and routines. Evaluations of a similar UK scheme, the Future Jobs Fund, were very positive, estimating that it generated a net benefit of several thousand pounds per participant, partly through avoiding long-term downward spirals of worklessness, poor health, low self-esteem, etc.

National’s attacks on the policy haven’t made much sense. Steven Joyce claims it will compete with businesses, but in fact it’s explicitly aimed at the government and NGO sectors. So the policy seems broadly fine.

The problem, as ever, is in the details. Six months is probably the right length of time, and the policy targets young people – one of the specific groups that such policies work well for – who have been unemployed for six months or so, which again is about right.

However, one minor problem is that the jobs appear to be fulltime in that six month period, which won’t leave participants time to look for the other jobs they will need once their time is up. Better designed schemes offer only part-time (20 or 30 hour) jobs to avoid that problem.

A bigger issue is that the jobs planned seem to be all in environmental areas (though there’s some vague mention of “community” projects), whereas successful overseas schemes have asked local councils and NGOs to put up bids to take participants into jobs across all the different policy areas.

This creates more competition between providers, raising the chance of the jobs being meaningful not make-work, and increases the odds of a participant finding a job in an area they are interested in.

This matters because, although Labour has been vague on this, it seems as if the scheme will be compulsory, in effect:

Asked if it would be compulsory for those young unemployed to take up job offers under the scheme, [Andrew] Little said the plan was to do everything possible to encourage them into work, including getting mentors to get them out of bed in the morning if necessary. There were sanctions already in place for those who refused work, and they would apply.

I think this is a bad idea, because that’s working for the dole, effectively, a policy widely avoided by governments of different stripes – and which has been disastrous where it was implemented, by David Cameron’s UK government. And the chance of people enjoying such jobs – and getting something useful out of them – are much reduced if they are enforced.

These concerns, however, could all be fixed in implementation, or between now and the election. In general this seems like a sound – and evidence-based – policy.


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