The government announces changes to its policy of docking young people's benefits if they leave work experience placements after their first week.

The government announces changes to its policy of docking young people's benefits if they leave work experience placements after the first week (Getty)

Ministers have yielded to pressure from businesses involved in the work experience scheme. They lobbied the government to change the rules after being accused by critics of using the unemployed as "slave labour".

In future, 16 to 24-year-olds who pull out of their work experience placements after a week will only have their benefits taken away for gross misconduct, such as stealing and racist abuse.

Currently, young people can leave the voluntary scheme within a week without having their benefits docked. If they do so after a week, they risk losing those benefits.

The "slave labour" accusations have led some major companies to reconsider their involvement in the scheme, but David Cameron told the Commons that 200 small and medium-sized businesses had recently expressed an interest in joining up.

The Department of Work and Pensions said Airbus, Center Parcs and HP Enterprise Services had also agreed to become involved.

'Trotskyites'

The prime minister told MPs: "The whole country wants to see more young people given the opportunity that work experience provides, and the good news is that since this row has been going on in the pages of our newspapers, we've actually had expressions of interest fron 200 small and medium-sized employers who want to get involved in this programme."

Mr Cameron criticised critics of the scheme, saying it was time to "stand up against the Trotskyites of the Right to Work campaign".

According to Downing Street, of the 34,000 people who have taken part since it was launched in August 2011, only 220 have been sanctioned, most for misconduct.

The prime minister's spokesman said that half of those involved had found a job within 11 weeks of their first placement. He pointed out that in the past people lost their benefits if they were involved in work experience.

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The policy change follows a meeting between Employment Minister Chris Grayling, pictured here, and businesses that have offered placements to jobless youngsters since the scheme started a year ago.

The meeting was held to give employers a chance to discuss any concerns and clear up any "confusion".

Channel 4 News has been told that businesses and business organisations at the meeting were unanimous in calling for the sanctions regime to change.

Mr Grayling told them he was sorry the companies involved had been criticised, but was anxious to get across that the working experience programme was important.

'No benefits if you don't work for free at Maplins' - how one jobseeker reacted after receiving his letter from Jobcentre Plus 

Although the government insists the scheme is voluntary, Channel 4 News has revealed that young people have received letters from Jobcentre Plus that do not make this clear.

On Tuesday, James Moorehead, 24, from Billingham in Teesside, showed Channel 4 News a letter he received from Jobcentre Plus telling him: "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 (Maplin Electronics) ..... and 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."

Mandatory

The University of Teesside graduate said: "The language they use, the words they use - it's just a mandatory scheme being disguised as a voluntary one."

On Tuesday, Channel 4 News asked Mr Grayling about the letter Mr Moorehead had received. He said these letters were only sent out once people had agreed to a work experience placement. He added: "It is purely voluntary. Nobody has to take part."

Music gradutate Joseph Wilson, from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, received the same letter as Mr Moorehead. He told Channel 4 News his interpretation was that it was not voluntary. "We weren't asked, we were told: this is what you'll be doing," he said.

Channel 4 News asked the Department of Work and Pensions on Wednesday if it planned to change the wording of its letters to make it clear the scheme was voluntary. We have not received an answer yet.

Critics

After our interview with Mr Grayling, several people took to Facebook to criticise government work and training schemes. Cecilia Fisher, who took part in the old youth training scheme (YTS) and worked in a supermarket, said she was the only person in the store who did not receive a Christmas turkey.

Daniel Griffiths said he worked full-time in a supermarket on the government's gateway "back to work scheme" and received just £30 extra a fortnight on top of his benefits.

Youth unemployment

Youth unemployment in Britain is at record levels. More than a million 16 to 24-year-olds are out of work, and official figures released on Wednesday show that the employment rate for young people has declined significantly since 2004, while the rate for older people has barely changed.

In 2004, 75.3 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds who were not in full-time education were working, compared with 75.5 per cent of 25 to 64-year-olds. By 2011, the employment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds had fallen to 66.0 per cent, while the rate for older people was little changed at 74.9 per cent.

These figures, from the Office for National Statistics, suggest that young people are being hit disproportionately hard by the economic downturn.

Controversy

The work experience programme became mired in controversy after a job advert for Tesco was wrongly posted on the Jobcentre Plus website, offering benefits and expenses for night shift work at a supermarket in East Anglia.

The company said a mistake had been made, announcing that, in future, young people would be offered a choice: taking part in the government's scheme or carrying out a four-week paid placement with a job guarantee at the end if they completed their probation period "satisfactorily".

It was been joined by several other companies in calling on the government to scrap its threat to withdraw benefits.

Several major chains, including TK Maxx, Waterstone's, Sainsbury, Matalan, Superdrug and Maplins, have chosen not to take part. Burger King, Pizza Hut and the charity Mind are reviewing their involvement.

Asda has said that every work experience placement it offers is linked to a genuine vacancy and training course.

Youth contract

The work experience scheme is part of the government's £1bn youth contract to help 16 to 24-year-olds to find work.

Under the work experience scheme, which the government insists is voluntary, young people are placed with an employer for between two and eight weeks. They receive benefits during this placement.