The Department of Communities Steps 2 Success work programme is envisaged to cost the public purse in the region of £50 million. It is delivered by three private contractors in order for the Department to achieve its aim of ‘helping eligible benefit recipients find and sustain work, thereby supporting the needs of employers and the economy.

In order to assess both the outcomes and effectiveness of the Steps 2 Success programme the Department for Communities has a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Performance Indicators (PIs).

Among the six Key Performance Indicators is has in place are the following:

  • The percentage of participants across all eligibility groups who have achieved job entry and sustain employment for 6 months
  •  The percentage of participants across all eligibility groups who have achieved job entry and sustain employment for 12 months

The results achieved by the three private providers, Ingeus UK, People Plus and Reed in Partnership up to December 2016 make for sobering reading.

Key Performance Indicator

Target

Result achieved

Dept for Communities Grade*

People 18-24 sustaining employment for 6 months

23%

21%

Unsatisfactory

People aged 25+ sustaining employment for 6 months

21%

16%

Unsatisfactory

People aged 18-24 sustaining employment for 12 months

18%

14%

Unsatisfactory

People aged 25+ sustaining employment for 12 months

17%

12%

Unsatisfactory

 

*Weighted average over 4 years

When the outcomes achieved are disaggregated by individual providers they fall even further below the Department’s expected performance levels. For example, Ingeus UK, which covers the greater Belfast region, only achieved a 6 month sustained employment rate for people 25 plus of 15%, against a target of 21%. 

When the (then) Minister for Communities, Mr. Paul Givan was asked an Assembly Question about plans to sanction providers who had fallen between expected performance levels, the Minister sounded resolute in his intent to take action against those providers who fail to deliver:

 “Unsatisfactory performance will not go unchallenged by the Department (for Communities). Prompt and appropriate action, up to removal of contracts, will be taken in all cases where a lead Contractor falls short of the required standard, in order to protect the Department’s legal position, safeguard the use of public money and ensure that Steps 2 Success achieves its objectives, including the need to deliver value for money”   (Mr. Paul Givan MLA, (ex) Minister for Communities).

 A case for prompt and appropriate action you’d have thought – no argument.

Yet despite results being achieved across two of the most critical performance indicators, sustaining employment for periods of 6 and 12 months being deemed as unsatisfactory by the Department, no action appears to have been taken.

To the best of our knowledge, at the time of writing none of the three private providers has had their contract removed.  In the above response to the Assembly question the Minister simply stated the Department’s policy on dealing with unsatisfactory performance but didn’t indicate whether it had in fact been applied.  It would appear therefore that no disciplinary action or sanctions have in facet been imposed on any of the providers to date.

So, no ‘prompt and decisive action’ against private contractors, but do we know what it might even look like in the Department for Communities eyes?

The Department for Communities Monitoring Schedule for Steps 2 Success sets out its procedure for addressing unsatisfactory performance for contractors.  It’s a three staged process that is a world away from the ‘sanction first, investigate later’ process adopted in relation to people on Steps 2 Success. It talks about the Department ‘working in partnership’ with contractors to improve performance, ‘taking a graduated approach’. ‘agreeing an action plan’, meetings, more meetings, letters, more letters, escalating the matter to senior management…how long is a piece of string in other words?

The phrase ‘light touch’ doesn’t even cover this type of scrutiny and accountability – it seems more akin to ‘non-existent touch’.

Contrast this with how benefit claimants who are forced to participate on Steps 2 Success are pursued and punished for alleged breaches of the conditions of their benefit. They are being sanctioned by their thousands for failing ‘without good cause’ to carry out an agreed activity – like attending a meeting or taking a phone call. They can have all their money taken off them for up to 52 weeks. And they do, in their thousands.  Between October 2014 and 31 August 2016 a total of 5333 sanctions were imposed on Steps 2 Success participants, the vast majority for ‘failure to attend and interview.

What all of this tells us is that what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. One set of rules and standards for the private contractors that seem to be about bending over backwards to facilitate the contractors. Another sets of rules and standards for Steps 2 Success participants which are about forcing people onto this programme, regardless of whether it meets their needs, and then arbitrarily imposing sanctions without any due process or impact assessment.

Angry? Unemployed people are. A group of unemployed human rights activists the #Right2Work group have been challenging this denial of people’s rights and campaigning for real job opportunities as well as human rights protections in the form of the #PeoplesProposal.

Why not join the fight today to get the #PeoplesProposal implemented. Check out the campaign on http://www.pprproject.org/right-to-work-right-to-welfare