28 Aug 2012

Tougher work-experience scheme may prove to be no joke

An employment minister walks into a bar and…

Granted, it’s not the best start for a piece of comedy gold, and what follows may not be regarded by some young people as worthy of a laugh.

But Chris Grayling says it was talking to a young barman about how his school friends were sitting at home “signing on and playing computer games”, that prompted the minister to a set up a controversial new work-experience pilot for Londoners.

Any 18-24-year-old who hasn’t done at least six months in the world of work will not be allowed any benefit unless they do 12 weeks of full-time voluntary work.

In an interview in the Evening Standard Mr Grayling says it’s clear in the bars and cafes of London, full of young workers from other parts of the world, that there are jobs to be had.

“It’s time to look a different way in Britain. A something-for-nothing culture does no-one any favours… for those who set out straight into the welfare state, it sets them out on precisely the wrong footing.”

As well as doing up to 30 hours of community-based work, they’ll have to go through ten hours a week of intensive employment support. It’s a bold move, not least because of the pickle the government got itself into over its last work-experience scheme back at the beginning of the year.

In exchange for their benefit, young people were offered the chance to do an eight-week community placement, giving them valuable experience working for, among others, the multi-billion-pound profit-making corporation, Tesco. But aside from the question who was it valuable for – accusations of cheap labour were plentiful – there was another pressing issue: just how voluntary was it?

Our own investigation uncovered young people who’d been sent letters clearly stating if they didn’t attend their “voluntary” placement, they could have their benefits cut.

There were increasingly frustrated reassurances from Mr Grayling and his government colleagues that the scheme was entirely voluntary. But as the big firms got cold feet, Mr Grayling had to remove even the threat of benefit sanctions.

This time however he’s absolutely clear. This scheme is not voluntary. Categorically not voluntary in any shape or form. If you don’t do it, you can’t claim benefits.

Why the change? Perhaps he feels emboldened after winning a High Court battle against graduate Cait Reilly who’d claimed being forced to work for free in Poundland had breached her human rights.

Whatever the motivation, Mr Grayling sounds confident. He says the usual suspects will cry “slave labour”. But, he goes on: “They are the people who believe that young claimants have the right to sit at home playing computer games. I simply disagree.”

The image of the slothful teenager lounging on the sofa on his Xbox courtesy of the taxpayer will undoubtedly sway many in favour of the new scheme, which is due to start in north and south London in the autumn.
But here’s something to ponder on.

The bright-eyed keenie straight out of university who simply can’t get work – graduate unemployment is around 25 per cent at the moment – will also have to “volunteer” for their benefits.

That might be a slightly harder sell. Just wondering.

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