The Spectator: John Penrose urges DWP transparency

This article was published in The Spectator.

Welfare reform is back in Westminster, with both Labour and the Tories now seeking solutions to deal with the 5.2 million on out-of-work benefits – a figure which The Spectator was first to pick up on. The Times today splashed on possible government proposals with Labour’s Jon Ashworth now accusing his opposite number Mel Stride of ‘stealing’ his proposals. In such circumstances, the Department for Work and Pensions could do worse than consider an intriguing proposal put forward by John Penrose MP, the UK’s long-time Anti-Corruption Champion.

Now confined to the backbenches, Penrose is channelling his reforming zeal into new avenues instead. The Weston-super-Mare MP has written to Stride, urging him to improve the transparency of his department’s employment support schemes and the performance of third-party suppliers. Some £2.5 billion a year is currently spent on initiatives like the flagship ‘Restart’ programme, with suppliers required to report performance data as part of their contracts. Yet such information is not published by the department, with even MPs and Select Committees struggling to obtain the necessary figures.

Penrose is backed by an intriguing coalition of interests ranging from the Fabian Society, the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Spotlight on Corruption to the ASI and CPS think tanks. Among their suggestions include publishing detailed performance data on ‘Restart’ – including outcomes, customer satisfaction and complaints data, broken down by region, ethnicity and education to identify potential disparities and encourage the best allocation of resources. Other ideas include central collation of performance figures to better evaluate supplier performance on the Flexible Support Fund.

It’s easy to see why Whitehall mandarins might not relish such ideas. In June, it was reported that the Restart scheme had managed to find jobs for just seven per cent of people while the ‘Way to Work’ scheme was labelled as a failure thanks to a lack of transparency around its targets. But with money tight, supply-side reforms will be one of the few ways for the Sunak government to distinguish itself during the next 18 months. It’s certainly a theme Penrose intends to champion in the coming months, having pressed Dominic Raab at Justice Questions on Tuesday ‘to publish the outcomes and success rates of all publicly commissioned programmes to prepare offenders for work.’

The question is: will ministers oblige?