Any lessons for UK?
Last Parliaments Education Select Committee, chaired by Barry Sheerman MP was impressed by the Netherlands model of welfare to work. The Netherlands, it is acknowledged, has relatively generous levels of benefits and other support offered to young people in exchange for greater compulsion to take up education, training or work. The Select Committee, in one of its last reports, recommended that the Government consider the merits of the Dutch approach. The Government has started a radical programme of welfare reform which will include the creation of a single Work Programme to provide greater personalised support and clear incentives to help young people get into work and off benefits altogether, alongside a restructuring of the welfare system that will make it simpler and more transparent to try to ensure that work always pays. Slightly easier said than done. The Government nonetheless is moving towards greater conditionality for young people on benefits, with increased incentives. The creation of a Work Programme will take the form of a single scheme offering targeted, personalised help for those who need it most, sooner rather than later. The Government in responding to the Select Committee report said ‘In essence the UK and Dutch Governments share the same aims of getting young people off benefit and into full time work and reducing benefit dependency. Both Governments agree that young people should be encouraged to increase their skills and education and to take up the opportunities offered to them.’ However, the approach of the Netherlands is different from the UK system in that responsibility for administering benefits is devolved to municipalities, who are given a fixed sum of money for the payment of benefits and work related payments. If the municipality pays out less in income benefits it can keep the difference; if it pays more it must find the difference from other budgets. The Government however makes two salient points. First an advantage of the current UK arrangements is that the benefits support provided by the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus is guaranteed nationally so that individuals receive a consistent service across the country. This is not necessarily the case within the municipal system. Another important factor is that the development of individual local systems to deliver benefits could unnecessarily complicate the system or be costly to establish and maintain. So this in short hand seems to be a brush off for the Dutch model. We should also remember, of course, the Big Society vision. To encourage more bottom up involvement and to seek to secure the best value for money, the Government will be changing the framework to bring the ideas and energy of the third sector and the private sector to the forefront of this process and programme. How this will work in practice though is not yet clear. Indeed giving flesh to the skeleton of the Big Society vision remains a big challenge for the Government particularly given the squeeze on funding.