In 2013 the government published an evaluation of the Community Action Programme. This workfare pilot scheme involved sending long-term unemployed people to work without pay for six months for charities or so-called community organisations. It was one of several workfare programmes introduced in a flurry of activity after the 2010 election as Labour’s forced work schemes were shut down at huge cost to be replaced by Tory forced work schemes. As the evaluation later found, the Community Action Programme was a disaster.
Despite attending full time forced work for six months the programme had no impact on whether people were able to secure paid work. Even unpaid workfare placements could not be found for half the participants, whilst there was some evidence of claimants transferring to sickness benefits as they were too unwell to carry out full time physical work. So shit were the results from the evaluation that many assumed it would be abandoned, including apparently Iain Duncan Smith who was unusually quiet about the future of the scheme.
Then came the 2013 Tory Party conference. Whilst Iain Duncan Smith was reduced to announcing a small scale pilot scheme in his speech, George Osborne stole the limelight by pledging a vast £300 million ‘Help To Work’ programme including forced community work for long term unemployed people, for six months, without pay. And so the Community Action Programme was renamed Community Work Placements and set to be inflicted on all of those leaving the Work Programme. As ever it would be overseen by private companies from the welfare-to-work sector.
It was clear that Community Work Placements would be shambles as soon as the tender documents were published. An analysis of the proposed payment structure by Private Eye found that it could be more profitable for welfare to work companies to keep people on workfare rather than encouraging them to take up short periods of real work. This of course didn’t bother the welfare-to-work sector, who were more concerned with the requirement that if they could not find somebody a placement then they would have to provide 30 hours of work related activity themselves.
Traditionally this has been achieved by herding people into a room containing a couple of out of date newspapers and a broken computer and ordering them to stay there for 30 hours a week. Even this costs money though, at the very least someone has to be paid to sit in a back office all day playing Angry Birds whilst pretending to supervise the inmates. And not only did the welfare-to-work companies have to provide this activity, but they wouldn’t be paid anything until they found someone a placement. With the previously mentioned pilot showing that placements could only be found for half of participants then this was not the kind of DWP gravy train the workfare industry has come to expect.
Very few of the usual welfare-to-work sharks chose to bid for Community Work Placements, and those that did, such as Learn Direct, had little experience of running schemes of this scale. But there was one firm who were very keen to get back in the Government’s good books. There was just one problem. At the time G4S were banned from carrying out government contracts due to being investigated after the security tagging fiasco.
The companies set to run Community Work Placements were supposed to be announced at the beginning of March 2013. This announcement never came. It was not until mid-April that the DWP informed those who had bid for contracts whether they had been successful, and two weeks later before they bothered to tell the public. The investigation into G4S was closed on the 9th April. On the evening of the 28th April, the day Community Work Placements were due to begin, it was finally admitted that G4S would be running the placements in most areas of the UK.
This delay meant that the scheme was long behind schedule, but those opposed to it were very much on the ball. First dozens, then hundreds of charities signed the Keep Volunteering Voluntary statement pledging not to take part in this or other workfare programmes. Demonstrations were called by Boycott Workfare and other groups, whilst even previously enthusiastic workfare advocates like the Salvation Army said they would not take part in a scheme lasting so long. The problem of securing enough placements was getting worse.
Over the next year and a half thousands of people were sent to work, without pay, for six month stretches. Yet there was no word from the DWP on whether any of these participants had gained real jobs as a result of the Help To Work programme. There still isn’t. It was not until last month that any performance figures for Community Work Placements were made available at all and these neglected to include job outcome rates. What they did tell us is that less than half of all people referred to the scheme had actually started a placement. Which was hardly surprising.
Last week George Osborne scrapped Community Work Placements in his Autumn Statement document rather than admit in his speech that his much fan-fared Help To Work initiative had been a flop. The truth is that these placements didn’t help anybody except the charities and community organisations who benefited from up to 20 million hours of forced unpaid work. There have been no statistics made available on how many people have had their benefits sanctioned for refusing to take part in this embarrassing and exploitative mess. Bungled schemes like this carry real human consequences, consequences that can be tragic.
Referrals to Community Work Placements should end in March next year although it is likely to start being wound down now. It is in no-one’s interests to keep this charade going, not even G4S who for once are probably not making any money, or at least not much. Workfare, on this kind of scale, is expensive. Far more expensive than just leaving people the fuck alone. The DWP spends nearly twice as much on admin, Jobcentre salaries and payments to welfare to work companies then they do on actually paying people the pittance of Jobseeker’s Allowance. But don’t expect them to have learnt their lesson.
A new Health and Work Programme is due to begin in 2017. Once again this will be contracted out to private companies although there is some suggestion that local councils are also to be invited on board the workfare gravy train. It is likely, although not certain, that this programme will make use of the ‘black box’ approach – meaning welfare-to-work companies having the power to mandate claimants to any activity they choose, including workfare. Until then those on the current Work Programme can still face forced work under the same arrangements. Plans have also been announced to compel all those under 21 to carry out unpaid work experience for private companies or be sent on community workfare. Workfare isn’t going anywhere yet, although that should not stop us celebrating this important victory.
It is an open secret that Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne despise each other. The lives and futures of benefit claimants now appear trapped between a clash of two egos. Osborne thought he could do workfare better than Iain Duncan Smith and has been humiliated. In revenge he seems to have turned off the vast sums of tax payer’s cash that were being used to pay for Iain Duncan Smith’s endless crazy schemes. What this means for the future is anybody’s guess. Millions of people are now at the mercy of two warring politicians. Both believe in a nasty ideology that claims unemployment is caused by unemployed people – and increasingly that sickness and disability are caused by unemployment. They just disagree on the best way to torment and punish claimants for their perceived sins. The future is far from rosy for the poor, but in the chaos that is to come there will be more opportunities than ever for collective action to defeat and destroy this bullshit for good.
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