The Kickstart youth jobs scheme has supported far fewer young people than expected, its delivery has been chaotic and basic errors have been made in its administration.
Like many initiatives triggered by the Covid pandemic there was evidence it was rushed and had many structural weaknesses that could see funding wasted.
These were the findings of a report published today by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, whose task it is to scrutinise government spending.
The PAC, chaired by Dame Meg Hillier MP, said it supported the Department for Work and Pensions’ “intention of supporting young people into work at what was expected to be a downturn in employment opportunities” – but the £1.9bn “emergency intervention” Kickstart scheme had helped far fewer young people than predicted; “early delivery was chaotic” ; and the DWP “neglected to put in place basic management information that would be expected for a multi-billion-pound grant programme”.
Over one year since the scheme was launched, with “stronger than expected economic growth”, the DWP has forecast that Kickstart will support 168,000 young people against the original prediction of 250,000.
Many young people who applied for Universal Credit at the start of the pandemic had remained on the benefit and, said the PAC, ministers remained in the dark as to why these people had not moved into Kickstart.
The MPs also accused the DWP of not knowing what employers were providing with the £1,500 employability support grants that accompany each young person as they go through the scheme. It said ministers “should ensure that it is able to, and does, claw back employment support costs where the employer has not used the money in line with its expectations, and allow gateways [organisations that help employers get funding to create jobs] to withhold the £1,500 employment support until employers demonstrate high quality employability support”.
Hillier said: “There are very unfortunate similarities across government’s Covid response schemes: rushed implementation and too little track kept of whether a scheme was delivering what it promises – even given the unprecedented pressures at the start of the pandemic. In this case the department simply has no idea whether this scheme was worth the money, not least because it has little idea what was delivered for it.
Kickstart job creation
“DWP set up a scheme with good intentions but with no proper way of measuring its success for young people seeking work. It enabled employers to spend money for placements with no method of recovery if the job did not last. Employers were frustrated by how hard it was to find suitable candidates for the jobs they created – and ultimately the scheme reached far fewer people than predicted.”
In response, the DWP told Personnel Today the scheme had succeeded. A spokesperson said: “Kickstart has categorically delivered, giving more than 130,000 young people opportunities to work, earn and improve their prospects. It responded to extraordinary circumstances at unprecedented pace, as part of the wider Plan for Jobs which has defied forecasts of unemployment rising to 12 per cent – the headline rate is actually 4.1%. We will consider the PAC’s conclusions as we continue our mission to get people into work so they can take home more money.”
Lack of management information
The speed of Kickstart’s launch meant there was a lack of clear guidance and basic management information, the PAC concluded. Basing Kickstart on a previous, similar scheme (the Future Jobs Fund) allowed the DWP to design and launch Kickstart in a matter of weeks; however, it also decided to introduce significant design changes which it was unable to trial within its timetable.
The rapid gestation of Kickstart created problems engaging with employers and managing the scheme, because Kickstart’s rules were not clear and its systems for monitoring management information were under-developed. This dented employers’ and potential Gateways’ confidence that the Department had a grip on how the scheme would work in practice.
The DWP should now review how it will be able to maintain the administrative processes it has established in the Kickstart Scheme, said the PAC, so that in a future recession it would be able to ramp up a successor scheme without having to design processes, guidance and management information from scratch.
As for slow take up of the scheme, with many employers becoming frustrated at the lack of suitable people to fill the Kickstart vacancies they had created, the PAC said the DWP needed to ensure Kickstart jobs “were accessible to the people the scheme was intended to help”, and that employers had realistic expectations about the potential candidates.
The PAC highlighted that although the number of young unemployed people searching for work had been well over 200,000 in every month since April 2020 and employers have offered well over 200,000 potential Kickstart jobs, there had only been around 100,000 Kickstart job starts by the beginning of December 2021.
Evaluation of Kickstart was also lacking, according to the MPs, with a lack of clarity over measures of success or regular enough reports on the scheme’s progress.
MPs were “surprised” by ministers’ apparent lack of curiosity about how much value Kickstart jobs added to the economy and to the employers that participate.
Work coaches’ role
There was also interest by MPs in work coaches’ extensive scope to make decisions about which young people would benefit most from Kickstart. Although this “person-centric” approach was welcome, there was a lack of structural monitoring of how work coaches are helping people towards work. This meant the DWP did not know if it was providing a consistently high quality of service to young people.
The MPs also felt the DWP did not monitor how well employers were supporting Kickstart participants. The DWP pays £1,500 per Kickstart participant to employers to fund set-up costs and employability support for Kickstart participants, which it hoped would make participants more employable in the future. However, it did not specify or offer detailed guidance or signposting on what employers should provide for this money and did not routinely collect data on what they actually did provide. When the DWP discovered that an employer was not providing sufficient employment support to a young person it was not clear it was able to claw back the £1,500 it had given them to provide this support.
This could be remedied, said the MPs, by putting the onus on gateways to ensure that Kickstart participants received the employability support that they had been promised, and it should begin examining a sample of Kickstart placements each month to help ensure that these expectations were being met.
Engagement with employers
More generally, the PAC queried how Kickstart fitted in with other modes of employment support. It pointed out there was no strong sense of a “pathway” of interventions for each young person, or what engagement there was with employers to sustain employment after Kickstart.
It said: “It is hard to see how the department [DWP] is using Kickstart in concert with its other employment schemes, though the Department reassured us that Kickstart participants could go on to take part in apprenticeships.”
MPs were disappointed “at the lack of clarity on whether anyone in the Department, or the Department for Education, is responsible for making sure that a conversation with a Kickstart employer about apprenticeships actually happens.”