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The work programme: making welfare work?

Jordon, John David (2016) The work programme: making welfare work? Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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This thesis provides a review of the United Kingdom’s ‘Work Programme’ as it was operating in 2014. The Work Programme was a welfare-to-work scheme rolled out nationally across mainland Britain in 2011. It was the flagship welfare programme of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government that was formed following the UK’s general election of 2010. Welfare-to-work, alternatively known as ‘workfare’, is an approach to welfare provision which, in theory, mandates strict ‘reciprocal activity’ in return for receiving state benefits. Welfare-to-work is also increasingly associated with ‘payment-by-results’ schemes operated by private ‘providers’. Welfare-to-work has been described by numerous theorists, politicians and social commentators as a positive and revolutionary transformation of the UK’s benefits system that will re-build long-term welfare claimants’ self-esteem, re-train them via ‘tailored help and support’, and subsequently re-integrate them into the active labour market. Such claims are also often associated with the belief that past welfare systems were too generous, thereby prompting the emergence of a pathological, intergenerational underclass. Welfare-to-work is therefore argued by many to be the best solution to a crisis of social exclusion, cultural degeneration and excessive national welfare costs. However, critics characterise welfare-to-work as an essential aspect of a ‘neoliberal’ crackdown on former social democratic states. Such critics claim that this New Right ‘hardening’ of welfare policy is designed to force the UK’s labour markets to adapt to conditions of global competitiveness, lower-wages, less rights, and onerously ‘flexible’ working conditions. This thesis explores these broad and seemingly contradictory themes in both theory and also practice. More specifically, it assesses the degree to which either of these competing claims could be said to be valid for the Work Programme as it was operating within two welfare-to-work centres in the north of England in May, 2014. The thesis is based on 68 interviews with Work Programme staff and ‘customers’, foodbank managers and one anti-workfare activist. In addition, it draws on full-time fieldwork conducted over four weeks in May 2014 within two Work Programme centres. The main findings are that the Work Programme did not support the long-term unemployed into work, but also that it did not act as a punitive forced work scheme. Rather, it provided only limited contact with, and support to, claimants, and was essentially pointless in terms of improving a claimant’s chances of finding work.

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