Is criticism of Workfare ‘misleading and insulting’?

by richardhutton

Writing in the Telegraph, Employment Minister Mark Hoban claims that criticism of mandatory work placements is “misleading and downright insulting”. Is this really true?

In fairness, Hoban doesn’t name anybody, or cite any specific criticism; but rather suggests that “a loud but misguided minority – often spurred on by the leftwing press – still attack these schemes and, ridiculously, label them ‘slave labour'”.  This may well be true – but then again, it may not. That’s the problem with unattributed quotes.

Let’s look at the main claims Hoban himself makes about Workfare:

“most people agree with us – 85% of the public believe that someone who is unemployed and on benefits should be required to do some unpaid work in the community while keeping their benefits if they’re fit and able”.

This is using an opinion poll to bypass any evidence-based analysis. 85% of people may well believe this; but it doesn’t actually make mandatory, unpaid labour justified. When mandatory work placements were first proposed by the DWP, the government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee outlined major problems with the scheme and advised the government to reconsider it – which the government ignored. Not least of all on the subject of community benefit:

“We were given a list of criteria for community benefit, but noted that one of the items on the list was ‘working towards the profit of the host organisation.’ We would like more detail about exactly what the Department means by this as we are concerned about the potential exploitation that could occur. We note that for some other unpaid work schemes, such as mandatory work experiences on the New Deal, there has been a paucity of quality work available for claimants in some other schemes and we are very concerned that this is a exploitation of people who have no choice”

Providing 40 hours of unpaid labour, in order to increase the profits of private companies, hardly benefits the community in any responsible sense.

Hoban also claims that “100,000 have already chosen to take up a work experience placement – an entirely voluntary scheme”. This, of course, is a blatant lie. The schemes are mandatory – as Hoban himself says in the Telegraph article, people are “required” to participate. The government’s own impact assessment states that  “Once a claimant is referred to Mandatory Work Activity, participation is mandatory and sanctions apply if a claimant fails to participate without good cause”. People do not volunteer – they are mandated. Hoban is not the only Employment Minister to weasel on this point. Chris Grayling was repeatedly caught claiming that these schemes were “purely voluntary” – when letters his department issued to participants made clear that they were mandatory (Channel4).

Hoban adds that:

“When people sign on to receive Jobseeker’s allowance they are also committing to do all that they can to find work.”

This is perfectly true – but some jobseeker’s face multiple barriers to gaining employment. It is precisely these people who are harmed by mandatory work placements, Again, as the government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee warned them:

“Evidence from the Department’s Equality Impact Assessment and DWP research shows that ethnic minority claimants and those with a
learning difficulty tend to be disproportionately sanctioned for not actively seeking employment. This, alongside other societal factors, could lead to these groups being disproportionately referred to this scheme and, as a consequence, at even greater risk of sanction. We are worried that sanctions will impact excessively on people with multiple barriers to working. Evidence (including the WP report quoted above) shows that it is precisely those people who, perhaps because they have caring responsibilities or a disability, find it most difficult to meet their obligations in taking part in unpaid work activity”.

This is aside from the fact that the government acknowledged in 2012 that mandatory work schemes do not improve the prospects of finding employment.

Finally, in-keeping with all government ministers discussing the issue of welfare, Hoban pretends that there is a division between benefits recipients, who are all unemployed – and hard-working tax-payers:

“It’s not fair to those in work or those who are doing all that they can to find work to allow those who see unemployment as a way of life to get away with it.”

This ignores the fact that mandatory workfare is likely to undermine people in work, by providing companies with free labour; and is not a claim supported by any available evidence, at all. Quite why people who are themselves unemployed should support these schemes is a matter of mystery.

All of this is proferred by Hoban to garner support for his government’s attempt to put itself above the law: “Today MPs will debate emergency legislation to make sure that people who had benefits taken off them for failing to participate do not get that money back”. It acted unlawfully in sanctioning people on mandatory work placements, because it’s personnel misinformed people into believing these placements were voluntary, when they were not. It has refused to accept it’s legal obligations – and intends to continue mistreating unemployed people unlawfully. It is not possible to justify spending millions of pounds on a programme which does not work; or to justify sanctioning people on unlawful grounds, then refusing to abide by the law.


Update: I had forgotten that during December 2012 the DWP gave “job centre and work programme case managers the power to mandate those claiming the employment and support allowance (ESA), who had been categorised as unfit to work at this time, into work experience without a time limit, as long as placements were deemed appropriate” (Guardian). This is one largely neglected aspect of Workfare. These placements are subject to sanctions, the same as with people who are fit and healthy.