Harry Cockburn: The government's "forced labour" scheme is flawed

Why are some big charities opting out of the latest employment initiative?

The government’s latest initiative to tackle long-term unemployment takes effect from today. The Help to Work scheme is part of a drive towards the government’s vision of “full employment”, which will see a raft of intensive measures for those who have not found work and have claimed benefits for over two years.

The cornerstone of the scheme will be the onerous requirement for claimants to attend the job centre daily to discuss their efforts to find work, up from the current fortnightly meetings.

In addition, claimants judged to be insufficiently skilled to gain employment will be allocated volunteering roles with charities and communities. They will have to undertake this work for 30 hours a week in six-month placements in order to keep receiving benefits such as the £72-a-week jobseekers’ allowance.

These are fundamental changes to the benefits system in the UK, and unsurprisingly the move has drawn fierce criticism.

The push to mobilise those who, in David Cameron’s words, are “stuck on benefits”, will see job-seekers forced to accept voluntary positions at charities and community projects.  

Aside from the oxymoronic notion of forced volunteering, the idea of coercing benefits claimants to work for charities is riddled with problems.

Many struggling charities are in need of any help they can get to survive, so will undoubtedly be willing to accept free labour. But in doing so, they compromise what volunteering really means, and make themselves vulnerable to using workers merely fulfilling the requirements to maintain their benefit income.

Some charities have spoken out against the scheme, with Oxfam and the YMCA refusing to take part. But 70 organisations have already signed up.

Unite’s assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, branded the scheme as “forced labour” and said it was “workfare”, and wouldn’t work.

His views have been echoed by the Salvation Army which has also said it would not sign up to the scheme, because it believes that if someone has been out of work for two years despite intensive support, then there are greater barriers to employment than lack of work experience.

Nonetheless, the government’s scheme is bound to look good on paper. As the obstacles to claiming benefits mount, fewer will be able to access them.

This may shave a small proportion from government expenditure on benefits, but the wider effects could be very unpleasant.

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