The government Work Programme and other affiliated schemes finds itself in hot water again this week with fresh allegations and a court ruling.
Work Programme providers and the job centre often set job seekers up with work placements. The idea behind which is to get those who have very little actual work experience something to put on their CV, but moreover, to enhance their employability and skills. These are unpaid schemes, the idea being that the increased employability factor is the payment (above and beyond the benefits they receive which is more than students doing unpaid work to better themselves get).
The controversial case of Miss Reilly seems a little strange. Job seekers are only usually entered onto these placements if they are inactive in finding themselves vocationally related tasks to occupy their time. She was already volunteering. So the problem lays in the person/team which decided to put her forth for an unpaid placement as technically she was already undertaking one; not the scheme itself.
The wording of the BBC article sent the inner workings of providers into a frenzie. With workers being told to ensure any customer communications omitted the word ‘mandated’ and any sentence stating their benefits could be stopped should they not attend not only work placements (a tool not used that often) but training and appointments with their Advisors too. Quite frankly ridiculous.
The Work Programme is designed to help those facing the most barriers (homelessness, drug addiction, domestic abuse, mental health problems, prison leavers and the long term unemployed) get back into employment by opening up opportunities before closed to them. These include placement schemes and training which they are mandated to attend to ensure they are taking their job search seriously; so they only get paid if they are doing everything in their power to look for work, to earn their benefits. It is a muted and more useful manifestation of the right wing idea to make benefit recipients undertake some form of community service to earn the money.
The judge’s decision to ‘quash the regulations underpinning the work schemes’ is on the side of Miss Reilly, and yes quite rightly so as the placement was incorrect and unhelpful. But this is not the case every time around, far from it and the ruling suggests that this is the case.
Forced labour it is not, as a payment is received; hence the ‘threat’ that the payment could be stopped. It is the context of the placement which needs to be analysed, and suitability decided upon. This can only be done on a case by case basis, which is the central point of all the controversies surrounding the Work Programme from ESA referrals to time spent with customers.
At the end of the day if ‘job seekers’ are not mandated to job seek, up-skill through placements as appropriate, and be active whilst on benefits… we will run the risk of ending up with a nation of couch potatoes feeding off the benefits system; an image the media and politicians love to use but are petrified of becoming realer than ever thanks to this ruling.