The Radio 5 Live Investigates programme has tackled the Work Programme and its predecessors several times. Today they were looking at reports that people are being pressured into declaring themselves self-employed simply to get an outcome for the providers, and on the promise that their benefits would actually be higher. No providers were named, but by the end of the programme it was said that 10 different providers had been accused.
Did we learn anything? A number of WP clients, two of them on ESA, told of being pressured from very early in their WP experience that they should go self-employed, not because they had any viable business in mind but because they could get more in benefits by claiming Working Tax Credits. They were given totally inaccurate figures, according to Sue Royston of the CAB, and were being led into a very dangerous situation where the fact that they're not working the requisite number of hours results in a clawback of thousands of pounds. People spoke about advisers being totally clueless and only driven by the need to get people signed off. One WP client, an unemployed project manager, faced an "adviser" who didn't know what a project manager was and admitted she couldn't help him, but the office rang a bell, literally, whenever someone signed off.
Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA (the industry's trade body) said she was surprised. She corrected some of the misinformation - the providers only get an outcome payment after 6 months, not immediately as had been said. But there was no excuse for bad advice, and people should complain to the provider if they felt they had been wrongly advised. The researcher was able to point out that people are frightened to complain, and would not use their real names on this programme. McHugh was then guilty of what I'm seriously tempted to call a lie - that WP providers are not able to sanction anybody.
Mark Hoban wasn't available, and the DWP said that there were always payment checks and a complaints process. Stephen Timms, for Labour, had nothing useful to say.
What came out of this investigation was that the taxpayer is being ripped off in at least two ways. WP companies are claiming outcome payments they are not entitled to; and WTC is being paid falsely. There's also the problem that the government is putting out false figures on jobs.
One thing that wasn't mentioned but which I'm wondering about; is agency work (which has always been regarded as casual work and so doesn't attract an outcome payment) being reclassified as self-employment? I know that supply teaching agencies have forced their clients to become self-employed, so shifting the costs of National Insurance and administration of tax onto the client. The same seems to be true of nursing agencies. Is it happening in other areas as well? If so, it's another serious distortion of the figures.