Work programme on track, Chris Grayling says
About 20% of unemployed people who have been on the government's main welfare-to-work scheme, the Work Programme, for at least six months have been found a job, the BBC has learnt.
The figures come from the trade body representing the main contractors delivering the programme.
The government says the figures show the programme is on target.
But several contractors have said they are struggling to employ the long-term jobless in the current climate.
"The early indications for those customers who started in June 2011 are broadly in line with expectations," said Kirstie McHugh, chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), which provided the figures.
"However, the economy is a concern so we are going to have to keep a close eye on things."
When the programme was launched in June 2011, the government said it hoped that 40% of people on it would get a job but speaking to the PM programme on BBC Radio 4, Employment Minister Chris Grayling said he was still pleased with the progress.
"The Work Programme is doing a good job and is on track. It is helping long-term unemployed people into work."
The overall figures provided by the ERSA may well hide regional variations and several contractors and sub-contractors spoken to by the BBC have expressed concerns about the situation in their own areas.
Other figures obtained by the BBC show that in some areas - one in central Scotland, one in south-west England - fewer than 10% of people on the work programme have been placed in a job.
In Liverpool, one of the main contractors, A4E, says it has managed to find work for 10% of people, while in Barnsley, the local council, which is one of the sub-contractors, says it is managing to place about 12% in a job.
"The problem we face is that the jobs simply aren't there," said Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Metropolitan Council, "so no matter how good the work programme is, there aren't jobs for people to go to."
Under the terms of the Work Programme, contractors are paid a fee, usually £400, when the job centre refers an unemployed person to them, typically someone who has been looking for work for a year.
Further, larger payment can then be made when a person has been in sustainable employment for up to two years. The harder the company has to work to find and keep someone in a job, the more money they get.
But Mr Houghton said the rules actually worked against the people the scheme was intended to help, the very hardest to employ.
"We are concerned that the providers, and we are doing this, are taking the low hanging fruit," said Mr Houghton.
"Even though the work programme gives more money for getting the really long-term unemployed into a job, the reality is that in order to help our cash flows and keep our organisation going, we have to take the easiest ones [to find work for] in the first instance."
Thirty-eight year-old Martin Williams, from St Helens, has been on the work programme for five months.
Having been unemployed for eight years and attended previous back-to-work schemes with the same contractor, he is understandably frustrated.
"They haven't helped me at all. It dehumanises you, and you feel worse," said Mr Williams.
"It got to the stage where I thought I'd rather be hit by a bus than come in here which is not the right frame of mind to be in when you are looking for a job."
The challenges facing the Work Programme will be investigated by the Commons' Public Accounts Committee next week.
One witness at the hearing will be Professor Dan Finn of Portsmouth University, an expert in welfare-to-work programmes.
He says the scheme has had a difficult birth.
"It's been rapidly designed and implemented. [During that time] employment circumstances have deteriorated so inevitably it's had a rocky start," said Prof Finn.