Could the government's approach to the unemployed be any more misguided?

2 Feb 2013

On Andrew Marr’s BBC programme, Ian Duncan Smith hit out at those who criticise his Workfare Scheme saying they “Think they’re too good” to stack shelves in supermarkets on back-to-work Government schemes. He went on to expound the virtues of shelf stacking and its importance relative to Geology, in a dig at Cat Reilly who won a case against the government. 

The main thrust of IDS’ thinking is based on the premise that if someone has been out of work for 13 weeks then getting back into work is desirable to try and improve their chances of getting into employment again permanently. To my mind, whilst the idea is welcome, the means and the execution are disturbingly ill thought-out.


The placements are short term and each person on a placement only receives JSA – which means they are effectively working for below minimum wage. Furthermore, if providers such as Poundland etc. are able to offer these placements why can’t they instead just employ more people in full time jobs to do this work and thereby reduce the number of unemployed? This would also have the effect of taking more people off benefits. For these reasons, the work placement scheme makes little sense to me.

However, the complaints against the scheme are often dismissed with people saying; ‘well the scheme is voluntary’; there is evidently a good deal of confusion around this which the government would do well to clarify; The Newsbeat website says of the scheme; ‘The placements are usually for people who have been unemployed for more than 13 weeks...  mandatory placements that Job Centre Plus advisors can demand are taken by a job seeker.’ [ – accessed 18/2/13]

Factcheck found confusion and inconsistency regarding whether the programme is mandatory or voluntary, in particular through analysis of the advice published on [and removed from] the DWP website regarding ‘Workfare’ and other work experience schemes. Yet, on the facts of this case Miss Reilly was told the scheme was mandatory, and for all intents and purposes it can’t be too hard to understand that this was probably not an isolated case, especially considering the confusion surrounding the scheme even in the Department of Work and Pensions. ‘When Miss Reilly told her adviser of that, the adviser said that participation in the scheme was “mandatory” and Miss Reilly risked loss of JSA if she did not participate’.

However, amongst some of those who give the impression they understand the scheme, what really surprises me is the obtuseness with which this issue is approached. Reading Jan Moir’s column (although admittedly it is the Daily Mail); she writes: ‘‘she risked losing her £54 a week Jobseekers Allowance if she turned down the unpaid work experience” and goes on to describe the opportunity for Reilly to work for those two weeks as ‘‘a bonus’’. Well at least the Mail bosses will know what to give Moir for a Christmas bonus – two weeks stacking shelves in Poundland on £54 a week!

On a serious note, however, if you take the amount of £54 and divide it by 20 (which is the number of hours if you did a 4 hour shift daily Monday to Friday); the amount paid per hour is £2.70. The amount that is legal for an apprentice is £2.65. Alternatively, for an adult over the age of 21, JSA is equivalent to about 9 hours of minimum wage and most of these placements are full time, which is more than 9 hours of work per week. [Note, the actual amount for JSA is £56.25 rather than the £54 referred to by Moir] Now, this scheme is ridiculous; those who are 18 or 19 and put on the scheme are being paid apprentice rates for a temporary job with no prospects; they should be given a proper apprenticeship in a company where there are future job prospects for them rather than being paid pittance for the effort with no long term opportunity to secure a job. 

Secondly, those who have left university and have been put on this scheme will be invariably older than 21, meaning they are working for far less than minimum wage doing jobs that quite frankly the Workfare providers should be providing as fully paid employment opportunities. This would reduce unemployment, ensure decent payment for the work being done and reduce the number of people on benefits.

And when we look at the detail of the case concerning Reilly; it wasn’t the case that she was a benefit scrounger, or even that she wasn’t making an effort to seek employment or improve her employment prospects. She was acting as a volunteer in a museum; volunteers are vital to preserving the cultural elements of our society and this is recognised in Cameron’s repeated attempts to win the public over to his concept of the Big Society and moreover, that experience will be far more valuable to her when seeking a job in her area of speciality.

Coverage of the Reilly case on Sunday Politics:


In my view, this isn’t about the concept of working in a supermarket, no-one is saying they are too good for it; (although I’d like to see IDS do a few weeks work in Poundland before he takes the moral high ground), but it is the statement this policy gives. The scheme shows the Government supports jobs for the ‘unemployed benefits claimant’ for the sake of work with no consideration of the type of job or placement, the claimant’s career trajectory or aspirations. Whilst this scheme would be beneficial to some members of the unemployed, it is foolish to not consider each case individually. 

Yet, all this aside, the element of the scheme which is really distasteful is that the DWP is subsidising workers (for that is basically what the scheme does) for multinational corporations who make massive profits each year, rather than working with small and medium sized businesses. These smaller businesses can’t afford to take on more labour but would benefit from having someone on a placement for a temporary period and this may even lead to them growing enough to employ that person in a full time paid role. Furthermore, this would enable a wider range of opportunities for the unemployed, incorporating voluntary positions within museums, charities, etc. as well as enabling experience more in line with individual career trajectories and ambitions.

Quite frankly, Iain Duncan Smith does the people of this country a disservice; do you really think the majority of people on benefits would choose to stay on benefits as opposed to getting a job? And, to be honest, all this talk of empowering the individual, removing big government, etc. is flown in the face by this policy, ultimately it is a policy of ‘empower the rich and remove big government for them but dictate terms to the poor and vulnerable and tell them exactly what to do’. Why doesn’t he rethink this scheme and allow people to get their work experience with small and medium sized business rather than multi-million pound companies who can afford to hire staff and pay them a full wage without government subsidies.

By Edward Sainsbury

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