Why does everyone have to work?

An audio version of this blog post is available on episode 164 of The Pod Delusion, 40 minutes in.

A lot of tasks are carried out by people not employed to carry them out. People care for relatives, cook for neighbours, run clubs for children, look after communal gardens where they live. This is the real big society. Many of these people are not in employment at all, never mind paid to do what they do.

Others pursue hobbies that might bring great joy to them and to society, or provide useful innovations applicable to other things. Writers, inventors, amateur scientists, musicians, artists – all produce things of great worth to society. When people work all hours for an employer these tasks are neglected but when people work less or not at all they are free to pursue these things.

Parents are not valued by society for the task that they do, instead it being expected that both parents in a couple will work

There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job.

Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor. Politicians argue that we should have more conditionality in our system; that we should return to an insurance style of benefit for out-of-work benefits so that those who have not spent enough time in work cannot claim the same benefits that those who have worked for years can. They want to take benefits away from those who don’t make enough effort to find a job. The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity scheme send people to do unpaid work for big businesses and charities, punishing those who refuse by taking away their tiny benefits for weeks, months or even years, even though such “work experience” is often simply manual labour that requires little training and does not help anyone to find a permanent job. Many people express the opinion that those in receipt of welfare benefits should not have “luxuries” such as Sky TV or broadband, and resent such things being paid for by benefits out of tax funds, seeing themselves as personally paying for such things. Indeed, government ministers have floated the idea of paying benefits in the form of payment cards that cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco which is a terrible idea.

The question that I want to ask, though, is why does everyone have to work?

I believe the answer is that they don’t.

In our modern industrial society we have driven down the cost of production through two things: exploitation of cheap overseas labour, and mechanisation and automation. I will come back to the first of these later, but what of the second?

Mechanisation has vastly reduced the need for labour. More could be done to continue this trend, but historically it has been opposed by unions because it puts people out of work. I think the time has come to say GOOD. Let’s put people out of work. Automate everything that can be automated. The remaining jobs should be divided up between everyone who wants to work, reducing the hours of all jobs until all those who want to work have the working hours that they want.

Of course doing so would leave many people without any income, or dependant on Job Seeker’s Allowance and looking for jobs that just don’t exist. (As is already the case.) These people cannot be punished for failing to find jobs that don’t exist, that is indefensible. I propose a change in the way that society thinks about people who do not work. We must stop resenting them, stop begrudging them any small luxuries that they may have, and instead pay them a decent income that allows a decent life. But that would be unfair! Why should they get something that you do not? Well there is a solution to that. Pay a salary to everyone, working or not, deserving or not. This concept is known variously as Universal Income, Citizen’s Income, Basic Income, or combinations thereof. Here’s how it would work:

Every adult citizen would receive a salary, paid to them by the government, of enough to cover basic living costs. It would perhaps be set at a level that would cover one person living in a shared house or a couple living together.

To finance this, the tax allowance would be abolished. Instead the citizen’s income would be paid tax free, and all earnings from other sources would be taxed at the standard rate from the start. Nearly all in-work and out of work benefits would also be abolished. Anyone without a job would stop receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit as those are replaced by the Citizen’s Income. Indeed, Housing Benefit to anyone who is in work would also cease.

Sick and disabled people would no longer receive ESA. They would receive Citizen’s Income too. In their case, though, they have additional expenses and a higher cost of living caused by needing to adapt things around them and inability to access some services so they would still receive Disability Living Allowance to provide for that, and care would still be funded by government.

The benefits that Citizen’s Income would bring are large. There would be no need to means-test people, and means testing is expensive. There would be no reason to track people’s efforts to look for work, and there would be no reason to punish anyone for not working – eliminating a huge bureaucracy required to do those things. There would be no stress and fear of losing benefits imposed on people who for one reason or another cannot work, no Work Capability Assessment – leading to improvements in health and quality of life.

Of course people will object to those choosing not to work, which is why we all need to approach the idea with less judgement. Although benefit fraud is tiny and the number of people who would choose not to work is low, such people do exist. There are people who do not want to work and there are people who are just plain unemployable. Under the current and proposed systems they would be punished for not finding work and ultimately end up homeless or dependant on family or charity if anyone at all. I do not think doing this is the action of a humane society. Would it not be better to let these people stay out of the workplace, avoid employing people who do not want to be there or would not do a good job? It may well be that eventually such people will decide that they do want to work and will then find a job that they want to do and pay taxes. There are many people that do want to work but only part time, and a Citizen’s income would enable them to do so where the current system would make it impossible.

Allowing more people to work for less hours might also have the benefit of making some jobs more attractive so that work currently carried out overseas or by immigrants becomes feasible to carry out locally, thus working towards solving the problem of exploitation of cheap overseas labour.

Such a system would have to be introduced alongside rent caps to prevent private landlords from taking advantage of more available income by inflating rents. I cannot pretend that a Citizen’s Income would not be very attractive to people in some other countries too, and short of introducing the idea worldwide we would have to consider carefully how to treat immigrants. (This sentence makes me uncomfortable, but I think it does need to be considered.)

Citizen’s Income would:

  • Replace the tax allowance and the benefits system
  • Make savings on means testing and administration
  • Allow freedom to work part time, full time or not at all
  • Allow the pursuit of hobbies and interests away from work
  • Produce inventions and innovations that benefit us all
  • Result in the production of books, music and art
  • Allow people to perform services for others and their community
  • Shift the balance of power from employers to employees
  • Provide security when jobs are not secure
  • Remove the fear and stress of disability assessments

The whole idea of Citizen’s Income necessitates a huge shift in the way that our society thinks but since many are calling for a rethink of our welfare system anyway I think now is the time to consider it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert, so if I have made any errors or misrepresented anything please let me know.

Further Reading

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation

 

DWP still breaking their own rules on Mandatory Work Activity

I suppose it was only a matter of time until one of the various things that I have been campaigning about hit someone closer to home.

My brother left college last year after finishing a BTEC National Diploma in Computing with a good result. Unfortunately jobs in IT are few and far between in this area and so after a few months he claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance while looking for a work. Wishing to continue his education but unwilling to rack up tens of thousands in student loans, he started an Open University course in Computing earlier this year (Which still attracts a course fee of £2,500 per year for part time study) with the intention of finding a part time job to pay his living costs.

My brother has turned up for his appointments at the Job Centre every fortnight except the one that clashed with our grandfather’s funeral. He went on the rather pointless one-day course that he was ordered to attend but that offered him only literacy and maths help far below the level of his qualifications. He has applied for jobs, although perhaps not as many as he could have, and filled in his Job Seeker’s record.

Then a couple of weeks ago during his regular signing-on he was asked if he was willing to undertake work experience. Not being unwilling if it would help his employment opportunities, and also fearful of what the repercussions would be if he refused, he said yes. Soon afterwards he received a text message from the DWP. It informed him that he was to start Mandatory Work Activity and would be contacted soon by a private company that would arrange his placement.

This was quickly followed up by a letter giving more details, reproduced here:

DWP letter MWA05 ESG

 

The letter reads:

To continue recieving Jobseeker’s Allowance and/or National Insurance credits, you must take part in Mandatory Work Activity.

ESG HOLDINGS LTD, or one of their partners, will support you whilst on Mandatory Work Activity. They will discuss with you the work placement and the support it will provide to improve your chances of getting and keeping a job.

You must complete any activities that ESG HOLDINGS LTD asks you to do.

You will still need to attend the Jobcentre and meet your benefit conditions, including attending Fortnightly Jobsearch Reviews and any other interviews and being available for and actively seeking employment.

ESG HOLDINGS LTD will let you know when you will start Mandatory Work Activity. You must participate until you are told otherwise.

If you fail to participate in Mandatory Work Activity without a good reason, your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks. You could also lose your National Insurance credits.

We have passed your details onto ESG HOLDINGS LTD who will be in contact with you shortly.

This letter was followed up by a phone call from ESG HOLDINGS and my brother was told to attend a placement at the British Heart Foundation shop for thirty hours per week over five days per week for four weeks.

However, campaign group Boycott Workfare were told in February that the British Heart Foundation would not take people who were forced to attend work with them:

The British Heart Foundation, contacted by a Boycott Workfare campaigner back in November, were insistent that they “would not actively encourage any placements, regardless of the scheme name, where the person involved is not a willing participant…

It is in the rules that after six months job seekers are sent to The Work Programme, but that is a different thing altogether to Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) and in any case he has not quite finished six months on JSA. The Work Programme involves learning skills and various activities, applying for work, and some work experience. Mandatory Work Activity is by definition forced on people and only involves work placements. In reality both involve forced work for no pay or face having no Jobseeker’s Allowance for six month, but the government did try to claim that The Work Programme was not compulsory. (They were lying though.) Even if JSA is counted as a wage for the work done it works out at far less than the legal minimum wage, and with MWA the job seeker has no choice in who they work for or what they do. Placements can be far outside of the skillset of the job seeker, or against their moral position, but are still compulsory.

A DWP guidance document released through a Freedom of Information request in January tells us a few relevant facts about the MWA scheme which I will quote in the next few paragraphs.

It has not been explained to my brother WHY he has been sent for MWA. Here’s what the DWP guidance says MWA is for:

15. A JSA claimant potentially suitable for MWA is one identified through the work targeted interview process, supported by use of the Customer Assessment Tool, as lacking ,or failing to demonstrate, the focus and discipline that is necessary to effectively:

  • seek out and pursue job opportunities
  • secure and retain employment

16. MWA may be beneficial for a claimant that has recently received a labour market related sanction/disallowance, providing an opportunity for them to develop the skills, disciplines and behaviours sought by employers.

19. If a lack of recent work experience is proving to be a barrier to finding work for an otherwise well-focused claimant, Advisory Teams must seek to address this through appropriate measures eg Work Together; MWA is not an appropriate measure in such cases

None of these conditions would seem to apply. My brother has attended all but one of his interviews and has looked for work. He hasn’t received any sanctions for failure to look for work. He doesn’t entirely lack work experience; he has helped out a lot over the last two years in a large kitchen for a charity that provides a conference centre and guest house, and has received training there. In any case, MWA is not to be used to provide work experience. Then we must address the issue that he was not given any indication that he would be placed on MWA or any way to avoid it:

22. A referral to MWA must never come as a surprise to a claimant. If a claimant’s circumstances suggest that they may be suitable for MWA, the adviser must:

  • explain to the claimant that they are being considered for referral and the reasons why i.e. to develop skills, disciplines and behaviours that are widely valued by employers and that can help them in seeking employment.
  • provide an overview of the provision to the claimant
  • explain to the claimant that the case for referring them will be discussed with the Advisory Team Manager in line with district implementation protocols to support MWA
  • explain to the claimant that if they are subsequently referred to MWA, their participation will be mandatory
  • record, as an LMS conversation, that the discussion with the claimant has taken place and the reasons cited for considering an MWA referral

NB The language and tone used when discussing MWA with claimants is crucial. MWA must never be used as a threat or portrayed as a punitive measure.

The news about the MWA was given by text message. However, the guidance states:

26. The referral must be made within an adviser interview (a flexible intervention interview should be used).

27. The adviser undertaking the referral must take the following actions:

  1.  Explain to the claimant:
    • why they are being referred
    • that the case for referring them has been discussed, and agreed, by the Advisory Team Manager
    • what the provision entails
    • how we expect them to benefit from the provision
    • that any travel and/or care costs they incur will be met by the provider

None of this actually took place. In the absence of any plausible reason for my brother’s referral to MWA and given that the correct procedure does not seem to have been followed in the slightest, I have to conclude that job seekers are being given mandatory work at random in contravention of their own rules, or that staff have some other motive such as targets to send for unpaid work. Perhaps the advisers don’t even know the difference between The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity.

 

 

Letter to my MP: objection to compulsory unpaid work

UK Parliament (freefoto.com)Dear Mr Luff,

I am writing to inform you of my opposition to schemes run by the DWP and the government which send people to do unpaid work and threaten sanctions for refusal to attend. I oppose the use of sanctions and removal of benefits of any sort to compel people to take part in unpaid work or to continue in unpaid work. I feel strongly that any such work placement must be entirely voluntary on the part of the job seeker. I understand that these schemes are a core Conservative policy, however I am not satisfied that this policy has majority support from the public.

Please be aware that I oppose ALL such schemes, including the work experience scheme, the compulsory work element of the work programme, the community action programme, sector-based academies, and mandatory work activity. I am sure there are others that I have missed. I find it very offensive to be told by Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling that “these are not the schemes that people are protesting about” when myself and others are very definitely protesting about all of these schemes. Even the spokesman in the DWP press office whom I spoke to in the course of writing about these schemes made this allegation, and it is simply not true. There is widespread objection to people being made to do unpaid work or face loss of benefits.

I believe that work experience can provide useful skills and training to job seekers however I do not believe that this will be found performing manual labour such as restocking shelves or cleaning floors in a supermarket, or, indeed, being sent out as cleaners to clean people’s homes. Such placements merely make use of job seekers as free labour to subsidise already profitable business but the claimants will not learn many useful skills at all, if any. As such I believe that work experience placements must be limited to those where job seekers are provided with a genuine learning opportunity and they are not displacing other paid workers as has happened in the case of Tesco and other supermarkets. (I have evidence for all of these assertions which I will be pleased to provide if you wish to query them.)

Additionally I must draw your attention to the plight of claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who have been placed in the Work Related Activity Group. As things stand and under the welfare reform bill these people, who have been declared not fit to work at the moment but potentially fit to work in the next 2 to 5 years WITH the right support (by one of the designers of ESA) will be mandated to attend the work programme if Atos has decided that they will be fit to work within 3 months. Since a vast number of people are currently waiting for appeals against their placement in the WRAG rather than the support group, and since such appeals are taking a year or more, and since many people have overturned the decision on appeal, it is highly likely that people who are far to sick to work are being made to take part in the work programme and as part of that are being mandated to attend unpaid work placements. This is clearly not right in a society that claims to support those who are too sick to work. As patron of an ME support group you should be aware that many people with ME are being placed in the WRAG and later moved to the ESA support group on appeal, and these people can suffer serious setbacks as a result of being made to participate in the work programme or even work focussed interviews.

Yesterday employment minister Mr Grayling supposedly made concessions to guarantee there would be no use of sanctions on people withdrawing from the work experience scheme. However I have seen the statement yesterday from the minister in which he stated that “The work experience scheme remains and is totally voluntary.” and also that “The sanction regime remains in place.” As I understand it he has not admitted that whatever the rules may be, job seekers are routinely led to believe that placements are mandatory and threatened with loss of benefits if they fail to start or withdraw from the placement. There may be a small technicality here but in practice such work placements are not optional from the point of view of the job seeker. Again, I have evidence of these allegations taken from the DWP’s own documentation and from several people subject to compulsory work which I can forward to you if you wish.

I therefore would like you to make it plain to the employment minister that he must move towards removing all sanctions for failure to attend work experience placements.

Please do not reply to this email with a standard “everything is fine” letter, as I find these to be rather dismissive and I would be grateful if you could address the points that I have raised here.

Yours Sincerely,

Steven Sumpter.

PS

I have heard of cases where job seekers who have declined work experience have been immediately sent for mandatory work activity instead. This seems a vindictive way for job centre advisers to force compliance.

I also have found some of the responses from Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and David Cameron to be highly offensive. I object to being called “job snobs” “trotskyites” “Anti-capitalist extremists” “unemployed anarchists” and to protests being attributed to the SWP.  These are intended as insults, not arguments, and are not what I expect to hear from government ministers.

Sanctions removed from work experience – but only a small victory

The government today caved in to bad publicity and agreed to remove the possibility of sanctions from those who refuse to take part in the work experience scheme. Those guilty of gross misconduct may still be sanctioned with removal of benefits.

However, a DWP spokesperson confirmed to me this afternoon that it is only the work experience scheme which is affected by this change. Those on the work programme, which is run by third party providers such as the disgraced A4e, may still face sanctions if they do not cooperate with the programme. As detailed in the previous article on this site, it is mandatory to attend the work programme after a set amount of time receiving Job Seekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance. The DWP spokesperson pointed out that the work programme provides much more than just work experience placements and referral to the programme does not necessarily mean undertaking work experience.

In addition to the work programme there are several other schemes involving compulsory work including the community action programme and mandatory work activity. There is also the possibility that those who refuse work experience may be picked for mandatory work activity, and then sanctioned if they refuse to take part in that.

I discussed with the DWP the issue of those who are receiving ESA and placed in the work related activity group being referred to the work programme and possibly for work experience. This is problematic since at the current time many people overturn the decision to place them in the WRAG on appeal and appeals can take a year in many cases so that people who are not fit for the work programme, never mind fit for work might be sent for work experience. The spokesperson did point out that people can present evidence and ask for a reconsideration before going for an appeal, although since at least 40% of those who appeal their decision go on to overturn it I do not think this is enough to ensure that everyone on the work programme is physically and mentally up to the task.

As it stands then, the removal of sanctions from the work experience scheme is a minor victory but the danger is that it will convince the public that all is well once more and the anger over people being made to work without pay may cool. Jobseekers and sick people can still be referred to the work programme where companies such as A4e can send people to do unpaid work experience or face loss of benefits. In the case of those who recieve ESA there is no limit to the length of time they may be made to work without pay. Bizarrely, now that sanctions for refusing work experience have been removed, it may be the case that only people over 24 and those who are officially too sick to work can be forced to work unpaid.

Mandatory unpaid work – the evidence

The government are relying on technicalities to claim that unpaid work experience is voluntary. In fact they claim that they are entirely voluntary which is blatantly not true. There are multiple schemes which involve unpaid work. Some of them are:

  • The Work Experience Scheme
  • The Work Programme
  • Mandatory Work Activity
  • Community Action Programme
  • Sector-Based Work Academies

Government ministers have been trying to direct attention to the first of these, the work experience scheme, which is almost voluntary. Technically a job seeker has the option to attend work experience or not. The acknowledged element of compulsion is that once someone has been in a work experience placement for a week they can be sanctioned if they leave it. In practice, job seekers may be sanctioned if they refuse to start a placement too. The wording of the standard letter on being sent to do work experience is very strong and does not give the impression that the placement is optional, and people on the scheme have frequently reported that their advisers led them to believe that they had no choice.

The second scheme on the list, the work programme, leads do compulsory unpaid work in two steps. First, referral to the work programme – where a contracted provider administers training, skills development and work experience for the job seeker – is mandatory after a defined time period. Job seekers aged 18 – 24 will be referred after 9 months, aged 25+ after 12 months, and ESA claimants in the work related activity group within 3 – 6 months. Secondly, once on the work programme it is mandatory to take up a work experience placement when ordered to by the company running the programme.

The third scheme, mandatory work activity, speaks for itself. It is up to the Job Centre adviser to choose whether or when to send someone for mandatory work. It is supposed to be used when job seekers have behaved badly or refused to comply with direction from the Job Centre, and to provide discipline for those who have never worked. In practice it can be used vindictively by the adviser with no recourse for the job seeker. Unpaid work under this scheme is supposed to only be work that directly benefits the community but again in practice things are different and the work can be something that does not benefit the community directly, but instead brings profit to an employer who does some community work as well.

Government ministers and the DWP have tried to portray these schemes as being for young people aged 18 to 24 however that is not the case. People of all ages have been sent to do unpaid and unskilled work including those with decades of experience or multiple qualifications in their subject.

Here is an image showing the standard letter sent to job seekers on being sent to do work experience:

Work experience letter: you could lose benefit

The letter states:

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)

DWP memo DMG 08/11 JSA and work experience includes proof that people can be sanctioned for refusing to undertake unpaid work. Here’s a screenshot in case that document disapears:
DWP memo - JSA and work experience

WORK EXPERIENCE AND SANCTIONS

6 From 5.4.11 JSA may not be payable or it may be payable at a reduced rate to
claimants who are entitled to JSA
and have

3. after being notified by an Emp O of a place on a Work Experience, without good cause (see DMG 34751 – 34752)

3.1 refused or failed to apply for it or
3.2 refused to accept it when offered

or

4. neglected to avail themselves of a reasonable opportunity of a place on a Work Experience (see DMG 34757 – 34758)

This DWP Work Programme Statistical Release proves that referral to the work programme is mandatory. This image from page 7 shows the detail:

Work programme referal points

Another DWP document, Work Programme Provider Guidance chapter 3, proves that work experience is mandatory when sent as part of the work programme. Please note that the document has been modified to remove all trace of mandatory work experience, however you may see the original here. Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 3 (Original)

work programme provider guidance original

Paragraph 14 states:

Work Experience for JSA Claimants

14. Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.

I also have letters sent to Aldston about the Community Action Programme which use similar terms to those used for the work experience scheme. See more at Aldston’s blog.

DWP letter - referral to community action programme

Provider letter - referral to community action programme

 

Apart from all that proof that unpaid work is mandatory, we also have strong indications that work experience placements are not helpful.

The DWP themselves comissioned a review of Workfare schemes in other countries, and you can read that for yourself – A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia

Their report concluded that Workfare schemes may actually make someone less likely to find work:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.

Subsidised (‘transitional’) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than ‘work for benefit’ programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

Full Fact have discovered that rates for leaving Job Seekers Allowance are the same whether work experience is taken or not.

Rates of leaving JSA

There is evidence that job seekers are being used purely as free unskilled labour rather than given beneficial experience:

Jobseekers forced to clean private homes and offices for nothing [Guardian]

In a clear conflict of interest work programme provider A4e has set people to work in their own offices:

A4e compelled jobseekers to work unpaid in its own offices [Guardian]

Finally, it is obvious that there are problems with sending people receiving ESA on the work programme:

My current experience for WRAG  [ABC of ESA]

Grayling, Workfare and Lies. Again.

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:

Grayling defends government work experience programmes (mp3)

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.

Work programme referal points

 

“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.”

The evidence that I have seen suggests that people do equally well on JSA or on the Work Experience Scheme.

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.

I will leave the last word to @anwen:

https://twitter.com/#!/anwen/status/172976751704682496

Government work placement schemes little more than slave labour

Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco
Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco

The above image shows a job advertised by Job Centre Plus. (Website link) It involves unspecified night shift work (probably shelf stacking) and the wage is Job Seeker’s Allowance plus expenses. Tesco will pay no wage for this work. It also says that the job is permanent but I think this must be a mistake.

The job appears to be part of Sector-Based Work Academies. (SBWA) The employer guide to the scheme [PDF] says

“The length of a work experience placement is determined at the initial discussion between you and Jobcentre Plus”

SBWA is supposed to guarantee a job interview at the end of the unpaid placement, but so far only about a fifth of people taking part in these schemes have been given a permanent job at the end of it.

The Conservatives are very proud of their efforts to get people back into work, especially their Work Programme. Most of their efforts seem focussed on getting job seekers into unpaid work placements in shops and supermarkets and there are multiple schemes to this end. Many of these people are given no choice in the matter; placements are often chosen for them, and they can lose Job Seeker’s Allowance for 13 weeks to 6 months if they will not go. Some of these placements can last as long as six months. No wages are involved – Job Seeker’s Allowance is paid, and sometimes bus fares.

Unpaid placements are not only bad for the unfortunate people who are forced to do them but they also deprive people of proper paid work. Tesco has been one of the largest users of work placement schemes taking on several thousand unpaid workers over the last year. The work that they do is the same as the paid staff.  Now Tesco are taking unpaid workers for the night shift too, which is a new development. These people are not only working for no pay apart from minimal benefits, now they are being put through the ordeal of working nights without compensation.

It was bad enough that the Job Centre were telling people to do unpaid work placements, it is much worse that placements are being advertised alongside real jobs. The government use the number of jobs advertised by the job centre to gauge the number of jobs available altogether. Do they exclude these unpaid placements from their statistics?

Government statistics have revealed that in all, 24,010 people have been forced to take part in “Mandatory Work Activity” – four weeks at 30 hours per week – between May and November 2011. This whole thing is the modern-day equivalent of indebted servitude. Peonage.

BBC Newsnight covered this story.

Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

I have written more about work programmes in a previous blog post.

Who benefits from The Work Programme?

David Cameron is very proud of his Work Programme. Whenever the question of jobs and the number of unemployed is raised he answers that The Work Programme will help 2.5 million people. He claims:

“This is about ensuring that we have better education, a welfare system that helps people into work and a Work programme that provides not phoney jobs, as the future jobs fund did, but real work for real young people.” [Hansard 12 Oct 2011 Column 332]

The problem is that The Work Programme (a name which sounds really ominous to me) hasn’t actually helped all that many people. It turns out that only 1 in 5 people on the programme have managed to get a permanent job out of it, and BBC research indicates that it could be even lower. Even the DWP only estimated that 2 in 5 would do so. Given that the Future Jobs Fund was achieving a 54% success rate at getting people into work and The Work Programme was only ever expected to achieve 40% it seems like it was replaced purely out of ideology or “not invented here” syndrome. The low success rate of The Work Programme has not been helped by hiring A4e as one of the contractors to implement the scheme. Their previous efforts in the Pathways to Work Programme achieved 9% of people into work out of an expected 30%. The DWP ignored this record when considering contractors because some other contractors had no previous record to judge.

The Work Programme doesn’t seem to be all bad. This video made by The Guardian about a provider called Cheshire Training shows some positive aspects of the programme such as providing job application sessions, CV workshops, advice and some structure to keep people from giving up or being worn down by the lack of activity that is often involved in unemployment. I think such services could easily have been provided by the Job Centre rather than being outsourced, and in fact, some were or are.

(Bear in mind that the people interviewed were chosen by the Department of Work and Pensions and are not unbiased.)

While there are some positive aspects highlighted in the above video there are some rather larger down sides to the programme – forced labour being the biggest problem. There are two schemes that take place before the work programme itself: The Work Experience Scheme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme. They involve being sent to work – usually full time – in a business that is paid to provide work experience. The placement usually lasts between two and eight weeks. Taking part in the scheme is not optional. If an adviser at the Job Centre Plus or in a provider of the work programme has decided that you must do some work experience, then you will have your benefits cut for at least 13 weeks and potentially 26 weeks if you do not. (And up to three years under the Welfare Reform Bill.) This is made worse by the fact that the job seeker does not get to choose their placement, they will be sent wherever the private contractor wants to send them. Not only that, but the work placements for the most part involve no training, only basic unskilled labour such as stacking shelves and washing floors. The Work Programme itself involves placements that can last up to six months and job seekers can be assigned to the programme for two years.

People sent on these placements are often doing the same jobs as people paid a full time minimum wage, except that is becoming rarer because many businesses that take part in the scheme have laid of temporary and part time staff in favour of free labour from the scheme. Instead of paying their staff, these big businesses are getting paid to put people to work. This might perhaps be just about acceptable if the people on the schemes were given a job at the end of the placement, but the norm is for them to be sent back to the job centre and a new unemployed person put to work in an endless cycle of free labour. It is baffling why our government thinks that paying businesses money to exploit people and making people work a full time job to the benefit of private industry for just their £53 per week job seekers allowance is a good idea. Even if the DWP do require people to work in return for their benefits (And I don’t think that fits the ideal of ensuring that no one is destitute) I do not think they should be required to work for more hours than they receive the equivalent money for at minimum wage. Indeed, it may well be illegal for these people not to be paid minimum wage and I hope that there are some successful legal cases against the scheme soon.

Times cartoon on compulsory work placements
A cartoon from The Times illustrates the problem

Cait Reilly is a good example of how the work experience scheme is at best unhelpful. She willingly attended an open day for people looking for retail work, work that she was quite prepared to take. However, after attending that open day she was then forced into a work experience placement at Poundland.

“I explained to my adviser my reservations about taking part: I was already in the middle of a work experience placement that I had organised for myself (and which was more relevant to the museum career I hope to pursue), and I already had retail experience.”

“I thought the “training” was optional, and it came as a shock to be told I was required to attend or risk cancellation or reduction of my £53 per week jobseekers’ allowance – despite the fact I have always actively sought paid work. So I began the “placement” with Poundland – it was not training, but two weeks’ unpaid work stacking shelves and cleaning floors. I came out with nothing; Poundland gained considerably.” [Cait Reilly writing for The Guardian]

The following is a quote from a comment left under the video shown earlier in this article.

“I personally know a fifty-six year old man who worked at Tesco for 40 hrs a week for 6 weeks for no pay. He said he was given the worst job, constantly filling freezers in the hope he would be taken on. After the 6 weeks were up the manager asked him if he would like to stay on for some extra weeks, my friend asked “with pay”? The manager said why would he pay him when he can pick the phone up and get more unemployed people who have to work for nothing of face sanctions meaning loss of ALL benefits for up to three years!

My friend wasn’t alone, he was part of twelve extra staff taken on to cover the xmas rush, no one was given a job at the end of the xmas period.” [Comment at The Guardian]

The above scenario of businesses taking on free labour for busy periods is not uncommon. We also have this example of a woman who worked for six months at Newham Council alongside colleagues who though that she was a permanent paid employee.

I went to [her] leaving do … We were all so sorry to see her go. She was an older lady and was one of the most hard-working and genuinely helpful admin staff we’d ever had. Worked her hours plus more and nothing was ever too much trouble for her. We honestly didn’t know why she was leaving after only six months. She’d worked a minimum of 37 hours per week (often more) and been the backbone of service delivery. The basic starting wage for that level is around £17,000 but for the work she was doing I would have expected her to be started at a few thousand more. Yet all she was getting was JSA and the fares for her lengthy bus journeys, while people doing identical work were getting a salary, paid leave and pension contributions. We were horrified.

Wrongly, we assumed this woman would be hired back as proper staff within days. The role was needed, she’d proven herself to be a fantastic worker, was well regarded and knew the systems. But no, the post was suddenly deemed no longer required and this lady never came back to us. She did exactly the same job as paid staff, yet didn’t get the same salary. This is illegal if the reason is age or race, but perfectly acceptable if someone has claimed a state benefit. It’s exploitation and it’s repellent. [Quote taken from Coporate Watch]

Perhaps government ministers don’t understand why unpaid labour is a problem because they are in the habit of finding unpaid internships and eventually real jobs for their own children through their family and business connections. Many even pay the employers to take on interns – £200 per day isn’t unknown. This is all very well for the rich, but most people who receive Job Seekers Allowance can barely afford food and rent. For those who are rich enough, paying for an internship at a bank at least provides useful experience for future employment in that industry, while being sent to stack shelves at Tesco or wash floors at Poundland for months at a time does not provide much for a CV in my opinion. It seems unlikely that a useful reference would come from such a placement, if the manager could even remember one person among such a high turnover.  Volunteering for a charity is a positive thing that will tell an employer something about the job applicant. Being forced to wash floors for three months doesn’t say much about them at all.

It seems that opinion is turning against this exploitation. Waterstones recently pulled out of the work experience scheme and some other companies that were accused of taking part, like Sainsbury’s, denied it quite strenuously and were keen to distance themselves. (Despite their denials Sainsbury’s are still involved in the scheme.) Cait Reilly who was mentioned above is persuing a legal case against the government. There is also a growing call for interns to be paid minimum wage.

I don’t object to work experience. It is quite reasonable for an unemployed person to spend one or two weeks in a relevant job learning useful skills for future employment. The Work Programme does not provide this. Instead it sends free labour to profitable businesses, and pays them for the privilege. These people do not receive useful training but simply replace paid staff in doing hard repetitive work. Most of the businesses taking part are profitable, in fact Tesco made a profit of £14,000 per employee last year. If they have work to be done then they should pay people to do that work. It’s that simple. People being sent for work experience should not be replacing staff, they should be shadowing them, assisting them and learning.

What is even more scary is that the government are systematically destroying workers’ rights making people more likely to become unemployed. Examples such as this call to Give firms freedom to sack unproductive workers soon add up to a worrying lack of job security. Is it really the Tory plan to have so many people sacked and working for free?

Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

Existing on benefits

Everyone knows someone that they think is a benefit cheat, either because they work while claiming benefits or they do things that they shouldn’t be able to do while receiving sickness benefits, or because they have expensive possessions or a new car.

The thing is, nearly everyone is simply wrong. Some benefits, for example DLA, are paid whether a person is working or not; and many people carry on working as long as possible despite their health problems, so working and claiming sickness benefits is often no indication of fraud. Many people have variable illnesses and can carry out a necessary task, but at massive cost to their health, so what you see them doing is no indicator of “worthiness” for sickness benefits. Many people have TVs and gaming consoles given to them by family, or had such things before going on benefits, or are running up large personal debts to keep up, so what you see in their home is no indication of fraud. Many people receiving DLA get a new car every three years through the Motability scheme, so having a new car is no indication of fraud.

Disability Living Allowance is paid whether the recipient is working or not. DLA is given specifically to make up for the extra expenses caused by living with a disability. My own father receives DLA which pays for him to have a car on the motability scheme. DLA also pays for suitable seating, extra heating bills, easy-to-access food, and other extra costs. My father is still working, and since he only has low paid temporary work, if he has his DLA taken away from him, he would lose his car and be unable to get to work.

As regular readers will know, I have a variable illness. There are days when I can walk to the shops. There are days when I can’t get out of bed or as far as the bathroom. There are times when I go out without using a walking stick but I have to use one to get home. (Staggering all the way.) There are times when I am well enough to ride a motorbike. There are occasions when I have ridden that motorbike for four hours, but then an observer has no idea what I go through after doing that. If someone sees me walk to the shops without a stick, they can’t make any assumptions about what I can do the next day, or even an hour later.

A major flaw in public thinking, and in the Work Capability Assessment, is the idea that if a person can do something once, they can do it again. I can choose to do a task at the expense of a day, a week, or however long in bed. I couldn’t do that task every day. I certainly couldn’t do it all day every day. I can sign my name, but I can’t write a page of text. I can commute to work, once, but couldn’t get home again. I could set up a whole website in a couple of hours in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t do it all day every day for a living, or tell you when I could next do it. Other people with health problems might be able to mow their lawn, put up a shelf or paint a wall, but at a similar cost to their health along with the associated recovery time. Living on benefits, as many of these people do, they are poor. They can’t afford to pay someone to do these jobs necessary in everyday life, and so they do them themselves, and pay the health costs later. Yet neighbours and passers-by see them doing these tasks, and instead of asking “can I help?” they phone the DWP and report them as a benefit fraudster.

580,000 people use the Motability Scheme to get a car, wheelchair or scooter. Getting an appropriate vehicle to allow freedom of movement is the whole point of the mobility component of DLA. If they have chosen a car, they receive a new one every three years simply because the Motability scheme, (which is not government run), makes the finances work by giving new cars to the disabled in return for a chunk of their DLA, and then selling the car after three years to recoup the rest of the cost. Since Motability is responsible for the maintenance of the vehicles too, this works out cheaper than giving people second-hand cars, and also doesn’t leave disabled people stranded when their used car breaks down. And yet many people denounce this as fraud. Why should they have a new car? Well they have one because that costs them less than buying their own used car. It isn’t benefit fraud just because you are jealous of their car.

Then we have the household with electronic entertainment devices. Big screen TVs, games consoles, expensive Sky or Virgin TV subscriptions, smart phones. First off, an outsider won’t know where or when these items were obtained. They might well have been purchased before the owner started to claim benefits. The might also have been purchased later using credit, which is then repaid out of the benefits, which of course means less money for other living costs. That isn’t fraud; it might be unwise spending, and I don’t necessarily agree with that either. In some situations these items are purchased using cash from a loan shark, or from a catalogue or pawn shop with weekly collections of the repayment.

You also can’t necessarily argue that these items are unnecessary. There is a big argument to be made that television is part of our social glue, and that depriving someone of their TV, especially if they don’t go out to work, is just cutting them off from sources of news and entertainment and social connection to the rest of society. I say it is a gross injustice to remove a TV from someone that may not be able to get out of the house easily and may have no other source of entertainment. Equally, a games console is a way of passing the time, and for children might well be important for their social acceptance.

Basically, if someone spends their entire benefit payment on a games console instead of food, that’s not fraud, that’s bad planning. Benefits do not usually come with a specification of what the money can be spent on; in the rare cases that they do, the recipient is given milk tokens, or Tesco vouchers with “Not to be spent on alcohol” stamped on them to make sure that the cashier knows your embarrassing situation.

I know that there are benefit cheats out there. I know that there are people working while claiming Job Seekers Allowance, some of the time managing to live extravagant lifestyles, have mansions, lots of cars, and so on. The thing is, you have probably read about every single one of them in the Daily Mail. They are rare. Those people go to prison, and rightly so. But most of the people that YOU might think are cheats, probably aren’t. You don’t know their details, you don’t know anything about their health, their abilities, their financial situation, or where they got anything from.

People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they?

This article was written for The Broken of Britain.

In spite of all that I have written on my blog about wanting to work, about my efforts to keep working even as my body fails on me, about how my wife (a qualified science teacher) is doing cleaning work that pays less than Job Seekers Allowance and creates havoc with our other benefit claims, I often receive criticism for my views. People think that because I fight against benefit cuts, I support lazy people that simply want handouts and expect a free ride from the state. That could not be further from the truth.

I can’t deny that there are lazy people out there. While visiting the job centre in the past I have talked to people that see having to sign on as the height of inconvenience, that complain about the job searches they are asked to do. And quite honestly, with the attitudes I have seen, I wouldn’t employ some of them either. But they’re a minority. Living on benefits is hell. There is never enough money. You never know when someone might decide that you have been overpaid and start clawing the money back. For Job Seekers Allowance, you have to sign on every fortnight, attend meetings seemingly at random, and take training courses that you could teach. You can be “fined” for being five minutes late to an appointment. You are only allowed to miss an appointment through sickness twice in your whole claim. For sickness benefits it isn’t any better. While on incapacity benefit in previous years I had to attend regular meetings to discuss the possibility of me finding any work at all that I could do with such poor health. Those meetings and travelling to them made me ill for a week each time. The whole system could have been designed with the express intention of utterly destroying your soul. Most people hate claiming benefits, and most people would actually like a standard of living that is not attainable on the meagre amounts that benefits pay.

The infamous “families with 3 generations unemployed” do exist. Perhaps that does affect the attitude and desire to work in the youngest, I couldn’t say. But there is a reason that these people are unemployed. There are no jobs! There are approximately 2.5 million unemployed, and an estimated 0.5 million jobs, most of which are only part time. However you look at it, 2 million people will not find work. Some may argue that they should take responsibility and start their own business, however most people simply don’t have it in them to come up with a business idea, or have the knowledge and perseverance to run their own business.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Department of Work and Pensions keeps official statistics on levels of benefit fraud. Here are the figures showing the total amount of expenditure on benefits that is fraudulently claimed.

  • Income support fraud: 2.8%
  • Job Seekers Allowance fraud: 2.5%
  • Housing Benefit fraud: 1.3%
  • Incapacity benefit fraud: 0.5%
  • Disability Living Allowance fraud: 0.5%

Total benefit fraud is estimated to be 0.7%. Total error by claimants is also 0.7%. And error by officials? Another 0.7%. So administration error costs the same as fraud. That’s not to mention the 0.3% error causing underpayments, or the 0.9% (£60 million) that administration errors deprive incapacity claimants of.

Ultimately, the vilification by the tabloids of everyone on benefits and everyone who is sick and disabled is incredibly harmful. Public opinion is shaped by the lies and the twisted numbers put out by the tabloids which cause the public to back the government in cracking down on benefit fraud and in ruthlessly cutting benefits. In the end that causes great hurt and anguish for the vast majority of people that genuinely need the help.