Monday, 6 August 2012

It doesn't work

Wales' policy framework for supporting young people not in education, employment or training is an incoherent mess. This confused muddle involves three levels of intervention by: the Welsh Government; Department for Work and Pensions; and European Structural Funds' projects.

No one seems to be quite sure how this all fits together. Overlapping projects compete for the same participants and duplication of effort, particularly in the Convergence area of Wales, is commonplace. The Competitiveness region, which has substantially less ESF funding, has the opposite problem, and there isn't enough provision.

You would have thought that the Welsh Government would have sought to address this, especially as it also has some oversight of what's going on through the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO). Alas, this has not been the case, and it has done little to provide any coherence or structure to Welsh youth employment strategy. To its credit, it has introduced the pan-wales Jobs Growth Wales and Young Apprenticeship schemes. These offer fix term paid job opportunities for 'work ready' young people, giving them a boost at the beginning of their working life. Whilst laudable, their focus on those furthest away from the job market is lacking. This is largely the preserve of the ESF projects and is ad hoc.

Then there is the small matter of the DWP's Welfare to Work measures. The Coalition's intervention came about after many of the ESF projects were already up and running. The blanket approach of the Work Programme across the UK and its 'whatever it takes' approach to getting people into jobs posed some real headaches. ESF projects have to be additional to government support. It's pretty hard to be additional to something that can, within reason, try anything. For many of the ESF projects, their only option was to narrow their focus to those under 18 - mandatory referral to the Work Programme kicks in then. The result is a lot of ESF projects chasing a very narrow group of beneficiaries.

Whilst impractical to devolve Welfare benefits to the devolved administrations, it was remiss of the Coalition to not devolve the delivery of mandatory employment support. This would have offered the Welsh Government the scope to integrate provision with existing arrangements. Even the scope for the two governments to cooperate and make the most of the current hotch potch is undermined by the very different ideological paths that permeate each administration.

The situation is exacerbated even further by the 'payment by results' approach that underpins the ESF and Work Programme providers. They get paid on the basis of getting a percentage of participants into employment. Unfortunately this encourages them to target the 'quick wins', those who are more 'job ready' than others, to the detriment of those with the greatest development needs, the biggest challenges and the least qualifications.

As is so often the case, those who need the most support run the risk of receiving the least.

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