IT promised 250,000 jobs for young people by the end of the year and is twice as expensive as other schemes.

But fewer than half of those have begun and Westminster work chiefs have downgraded their aims to up to 168,000 starts by the end of March 2022.

So far, they've got to 100,000. But the UK Government doesn't know if this is "high quality" work or whether its Kickstart initiative is having any positive impact, a watchdog says.

The Government said it had "acted quickly and decisively" to tackle youth employment problems during the pandemic.

But the National Audit Office (NAO) says there are major gaps in what we know about the £1.9 billion programme.

"DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] has limited assurance that Kickstart is having the positive impact intended," NAO head Gareth Jones stated.

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The DWP launched the Kickstart programme in September last year. It offers six-month job placements to 16-24-year-olds who are on Universal Credit and are deemed to be at risk of long-term unemployment, with funding provided to employers to create those new jobs.

With a cost of around £7000 per participant, the scheme is more than twice the cost per participant of the next most expensive programme run by the DWP, which has calculated that the benefits to society will outweigh those costs by up to £1.65 for every £1 invested – as long as it is targeted effectively at the right people and the jobs created would not have otherwise been funded by employers.

But in its business case, the department assumed only 50% of the economic output of Kickstart jobs would be additional, with the rest taken up by "deadweight" jobs that would have been created without the public cash, "substitution", where bosses don't offer any non-supported posts, and "displacement", where the success of participating firms leads to job losses amongst rivals. The DWP considers that figure to have been a "conservative assumption", the NAO said, "given the low demand in the economy and the controls in place, although it has no data from evaluations of previous schemes on which to base its assessment".

That's partly because Kickstart was based on the two-year Future Jobs Fund, which finished in 2011, and the DWP made changes it did not have time to test before implementation, the NAO said. This included greater private sector involvement, so that the jobs "more resembled real jobs" that would help participants into sustained employment afterwards. But there were technical and logistical problems and a lack of published data on progress.

"Very little" of the internal process or systems to manage the programme were fully developed at the time of launch and DWP work coaches were unable to filter or search for specific skills or sectors, making it more difficult for them to identify suitable vacancies for claimants, the report found.

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In its report, the NAO added that the labour market re-opened in ways that were not originally expected due to following lockdowns.

A UK Government spokesman said: "We acted quickly and decisively to establish Kickstart at the start of the pandemic when it was feared unemployment levels would more than double - as this report acknowledges.

"The scheme has already delivered over 100,000 new life-changing jobs for young jobseekers on Universal Credit who were at risk of long-term unemployment and will continue to deliver opportunities for young people."

There were 1.2 million job vacancies in the UK economy over August to October 2021 – the highest number of job vacancies since records began in 2001.