Many charities are still some of the biggest exploiters of the government’s workfare scheme despite the public outcry over the last couple of weeks. Whilst several, most notably Oxfam and Marie Curie, have made clear statements that they will no longer be involved in forced labour of any kind, many more are being typically evasive. Barnardos (@barnardos), Cancer Research (@CR_UK) and the British Heart Foundation (@theBHF) have chosen simply to ignore the hundreds of people who have contacted them expressing outrage at their use of forced labour. Others, such as the Salvation Army and Age UK have wobbled, but are still using workfare.
Far more concerning is the number of charities still happy to profit directly from workfare as contractors of the government’s Work Programme scheme. According to Chris Grayling the Work Programme is the largest Welfare to Work scheme seen since the 1930s. Figures just announced show that since June last year 370,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have been referred onto the Work Programme scheme and around 20,000 claimants on Employment Support Allowance (ESA, the replacement for Incapacity Benefit).
The Work Programme is a mandatory scheme under which unemployed and sick or disabled claimants can be forced to undertake ‘Work Related Activity’ for up to two years. In the case of JSA claimants this could include a period of six months workfare, often with a private sector employer. Despite the lies told by ministers Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith, a now apparently censored document reveals that claimants have been forced to work at Pizza Hut, ASDA, Wilkinsons and many other household names from the private sector.
As ever, the ‘Work Programme’ scheme was contracted out largely to the private sector. 40 prime contracts in 18 regions were selected to manage the programme, and despite Cameron’s claims that the voluntary sector would be at the heart of the Work Programme, just one of these contracts was awarded to a charity, the Careers Development Group. The rest have been awarded to profit making companies such as much maligned fraudsters A4e. The contracts have been estimated to be worth 3-5 billions pounds. To place this sum in context, George Osborne’s cuts have wiped £11 billion from welfare benefits, including savage cuts to housing benefit which have already led to many families losing their homes. Yet he is happy to dish out almost half of that sum to private companies, for a scheme so apparently flawed that they daren’t even tell us if anyone has actually found work due to Work Programme.
Some of that cash is intended to flow down to the 289 sub-contracters who have been brought in to provide ‘specialist support’, often for the most vulnerable claimants. The vast bulk of these are charities including household names such as MIND, SCOPE and Action for Blind People. However all is not well on the Work Programme gravy train. Some charities have pulled out, many are claiming a lack of referrals has made the scheme uneconomic, others are concerned that the payment after results system means they do not have the capital to develop workfare provision.
Shamefully not one charity has pulled out over concerns that some people are being bullied into forced labour in supermarkets under the scheme. Neither have any raised concerns that many people, including sick and disabled claimants, have had benefits sanctioned and been condemned to poverty and possible homelessness as a result. Whilst some charities, including MIND and SCOPE have issued statements that they will no longer use forced labour in their shops, they appear unrepentant about profiting from a scheme that involves forced labour on an industrial scale.
Disability Works is a consortium of disability and mental health charities which was formed to maximise income from the Work Programme. After facing heavy criticism when the workfare row first blew up, a statement was issued by mental health charity MIND, which attempted to clarify their position:
“Mind is a member of Disability Works UK, a not-for-profit consortium of eight disability charities that have come together to provide tailored support to people who are ready to enter the workplace.
Through Disability Works UK, our local Minds may be involved in offering specialist support to people with mental health problems helping to improve their skills and boost their confidence.
Well-structured and meaningful volunteering can be an excellent way to prepare people for paid work.
However, we believe that forcing people to volunteer is not the best way forward.
Disability Works UK will not play a role in imposing sanctions and will only seek contracts with providers whose values are compatible with our own.”
This is disingenuous to say the least, in fact it might best be described as a deliberate distortion of the truth. Benefit sanctions are at the heart of the Work Programme and all of the prime contracters and sub-contracters are aware of this. Disability Works may not play a role in imposing sanctions, they don’t play a role in paying out benefits either. Only the DWP can sanction someone’s benefit’s (obviously). Member’s of Disability Works however are contractually obliged to report any ‘Compliance Doubts’ to the prime contractors who in turn send them onto the DWP, who are the ones who administer a benefit sanction. A ‘compliance doubt’ may mean that a claimant has refused to go and work in Poundland for no pay, or has failed to turn up for an Interview Skills workshop, short training course, or other activity. If Disability Works do not follow this procedure and refuse to report compliance breaches, then they are in breach of contract with their contractors and ultimately the DWP.
The Work Programme Provider’s Guidance* (PDF) clearly states that: “Sanctions are a tool to encourage participants to actively engage with support offered. Where a participant has failed to comply with a mandated activity, you are required to follow a process for raising a compliance doubt.
Whilst it is true that providers can appeal that in some circumstances a claimant (on ESA only) is vulnerable, the end decision will be made by the DWP. Sick and disabled people are not exempt from benefit sanctions as is clear: “If one of these participants fails to undertake WRA (Work Related Activity) without good cause, a sanction will apply. The Work Related Activity Component (WRAC) will be reduced whilst the ESA participant is sanctioned.”
All of the charities involved in Work Programme, including Disability Works have signed up to this, and indeed are profiting from it.
The big disability charities are attempting to treat both their users and the general public as fools. Whilst corporate slime like Tesco and Burger King have at least attempted to be honest about their role in workfare, the big charities are using weasel words to completely misrepresent their involvement in the scheme. The likelihood is that the members of Disability Works will make far more money out of workfare than Tesco ever did.
The nature of the Work Programme makes it very difficult to know for sure exactly what is going on at grassroots level. Providers have been given free reign to mandate claimants to all kinds of activities, with many of their programmes kept confidential under the handy smokescreen of commercial confidentitality rules. Some charities may only be partaking a small role, such as provide housing advice to homeless participants, others may manage the full spectrum of a person’s activity on Work Programme.
Were Disability Works to publish a full outline of their Work Programme provision then this may go some way towards developing some much needed transparency in the scheme. As it stands the statement from MIND suggests that they may well be involved in mandating people to forced labour.
Under current rules, claimants on ESA cannot be mandated to workfare, although they can be mandated to up to 15 hours of training a week amongst other activities. For those claimants on JSA the situation is very different and they could face forced labour for six months. Thousands of people with disabilities and mental health conditions have been bullied onto Job Seeker’s Allowance by the flawed Work Capability Assessment, many of them will no doubt have been mandated to workfare.
Those on ESA, many of whom have fluctuating conditions, are just if not more vulnerable to benefit sanctions. Should a mandatory appointment or training scheme with one of the charitable providers happen to fall on a ‘bad day’, and the claimant is unable to attend, they are very likely to face sanctions. All of the charities have been happy to go along with this as long as it kept lining their pockets.
The members of Disability Works, (who can be found here) should be ashamed for colluding in this attack on the most vulnerable in society. That they allowed themselves to put aside the needs of their users in favour of juicy government contracts is a disgrace. That they are still participating, and profiting from the scheme which is bringing misery to thousands, shows they do not deserve the support of those appalled by forced labour. Until they clearly, and unambiguously reject the Work Programme they should be condemned along with Primark and McDonalds and all other organisations happy to profit from workfare. Anything other than an absolute condemnation of the Work Programme, workfare and benefit sanctions will be seen as yet another gross betrayal of the very people these charities were established to support.
A full list of charities and other organisations with Work Programme sub-contracts can be found (for now) at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/wp-supply-chains.pdf
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