The standard letter sent out by the Job Centre to people who have been told to attend work experience gives an extremely strong impression that there is no choice and that the claimant will lose benefits if they do not attend. The letter says:
Please note that if, without a good reason, you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going to the provision mentioned above (as in Section 19(5)(b) of the Jobseekers Act 1995), any future payments of Jobseeker’s Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate. You could also lose entitlement to credit of National Insurance contributions. (Emphasis mine)
Although Chris Grayling and other ministers insist that the work experience scheme is voluntary, and that the claimant can withdraw in the first week, and point out that the above letter is sent to people after they have “volunteered” for the placement, the letter clearly states “If…you fail to start” which leaves no room for doubt that the placement is mandatory. Job seekers are also commonly led to believe in person by Job Centre advisors that the work experience is not optional. Channel 4 News interviewed several people who confirmed that they had been led to believe that they had no choice in taking work placements.
Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News confronted Chris Grayling with the evidence:
Grayling makes astonishing claims in the face of evidence. First he responds with misdirection and denial:
“It could be related to a scheme which has a training module attached.”
“Let’s be absolutely clear, the scheme is voluntary.”
“Cathy, I’m afraid that’s simply not true”
Worse, he tries to get very manipulative about this:
“I’m sure you’re not telling me that I’m not telling you the truth. I’m looking you in the eyes through the camera and saying to you this is a voluntary scheme.”
Except she IS telling him that. At the start of the interview Cathy Newman said:
“Either the letter is misleading or you’re misleading.”
Finally Grayling goes for claiming he hasn’t seen the evidence:
“Look, I haven’t seen the letter that you’ve got.”
However, as Cathy Newman tweeted after the interview, it was sent to him earlier in the day.
What it boils down to is this. The scheme might technically be voluntary. However, if Job Centre advisers tell people that they have no choice, and if official letters state very clearly that you can lose benefit if you do not start the placement, and if job seekers are not told that they can opt out in the first week without penalty, if everyone across the UK is under the impression that the scheme is mandatory, then the scheme might as well be mandatory.
Yes, I’m afraid this is yet another blog post on Workfare and Chris Grayling. Sorry. I just couldn’t let this one go. Employment minister Chris Grayling spoke to Radio 4’s Today programme this morning at length and lied his way through the whole eleven minutes. You can have a listen in this Audioboo:
I started to transcribe the parts that were blatant lies, but I gave up because it was going to be so long. Instead I will highlight a couple of points. Grayling repeatedly asserted that the Work Experience Scheme is entirely voluntary. On paper, it is. In practice once a Job Centre adviser has suggested that someone should go for work experience, if they refuse then they are likely to be sanctioned (lose benefits) for being uncooperative or referred for Mandatory Work Activity which is definitely not voluntary. In addition, a person will lose benefits for at least four weeks if they drop out of a work experience placement after the first week, so it is definitely not voluntary after week one.
Grayling mentioned Mandatory Work Activity. He said it would only be used “when a job centre plus adviser feels that somebody has gone off the rails or they’re not trying or they’re really kind of out of sorts.” The DWP say that it would only be used for people who need to learn the discipline necessary to hold down a job because they have never worked, however we know that MWA can often be used as a punishment for disagreeing with an adviser or simply because an adviser doesn’t like someone. There is an article in The Guardian detailing the case of a graduate who has previously worked (for pay) in McDonalds and Morrisons and yet was sent for MWA. According to James Ball of The Guardian, in November 8,100 people were sent for mandatory work activity, which is 1,500 more than those sent for work experience.
He said that MWA is only used for “community benefiting projects” which is not true. MWA can be for a for-profit company as long as that company undertakes some community work.
He said that the only scheme which involves mandatory work is the Mandatory Work Activity scheme. This is not true. People can be forced to take part in The Work Scheme, as you can see for yourself in this DWP statistics release. [PDF] The image below shows page 7 from this document with the word “Mandatory” clearly used over and over again. This is regarding referal to The Work Programme, however once on the programme the private company providing the services such as the disgraced A4e can and do send people for unpaid work.
“They’re coming under pressure from a big internet campaign that is being run by an organisation that is a front for the Socialist Workers Party.”
“It’s a false campaign […] My own email address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco so I don’t accept that the scale of the campaign is very large, it’s a small number of activists who are deliberately targeting these companies and trying to destabilise them.”
I have no doubt that there are some members of the Socialist Worker Party who object to Workfare schemes, but his assertion that objections are being run by an organisation that is a front for the SWP is just ridiculous. For a start, campaigns aren’t being run by any one organisation. There are multiple groups and all sorts of people objecting and campaigning. Boycott Workfare and Right to work are just two of those groups.
Grayling’s claim of hacking stems from his complete failure to understand IT and his labelling what he doesn’t understand as hacking. According to the Today Programme some time after Grayling’s interview:
Mr Grayling clarified his statement, saying that his email was not hacked but that his email address was used on a complaint lodged with Tesco.
Information seen later suggests that Grayling was in fact copied in to an email sent to Tesco by putting his email address in the CC field. If that is true and Grayling can’t tell the difference between being copied in to an email and computer hacking then I suggest that he has some serious defficiencies in his knowledge and needs to go on some remedial courses before he continues in his role in government.
Grayling stated that 50% of the people who start the work experience scheme are off benefits within eleven weeks. This is the only statistic that he was able to quote about results of any of these schemes, and it does not shed any light on how many of those people find work rather than simply stop claiming benefits and rely on parents or partners for room and board or end up homeless. He says “We know that a large number of those young people are actually staying on in employment with the employers who give them the placement” however he is unable to quote any proper reference for that claim and it appears to be purely anecdotal. Certainly Tesco have publicly said that of the 1,400 people that have been on the work experience scheme with them, only 300 have been taken on permanently.
“All of the evidence that we can see is that this does better than simply leaving people on JSA.”
Grayling claimed once again that no companies have pulled out of the work experience scheme. Some companies have demanded guarantees that no one would lose benefits over refusing or dropping out of the scheme, but quite a lot have pulled out entirely.
The presenter touched on an important point when he said that Cait Reilly “was under the impression that she was being forced to do it.” The phrase normally used by the Job Centre is “Your benefits may be affected if you do not attend” or something very similar. This phrase is used for all sorts of things, not just work placements. It is used for the work capability assessment for ESA, which is certainly not seen as optional by most people! It was used when I claimed incapacity benefit in 2005 and was instructed to attend the Job Centre to talk to a disability advisor about possible work. It didn’t seem optional to me. Basically, on paper many of these schemes may be optional but in practice if people don’t do as they are told by the DWP they lose benefits. If the Work Experience Scheme is optional then Chris Grayling needs to inform the Job Centre of that fact.