A new scheme that will force unemployed people into unpaid work is in trouble on its first day, with dozens of charities and faith groups refusing to take part in it.
The “Help to Work” scheme, announced by George Osborne at the last Conservative Party conference, will require long-term unemployed people to work full-time for six months for a voluntary or community group. Their benefits will be cut if they fail to take part.
The scheme, also known as “Community Work Placements”, begins today (28 April). But over thirty voluntary sector groups – including Oxfam, Anti-Slavery International, the Ekklesia thinktank and a range of local agencies – have condemned the scheme and said they will not participate.
They say that unemployed people need paid jobs and that voluntary groups need real, willing volunteers.
They have urged all faith groups, charities and other voluntary organisations to reject workfare schemes and sign their call to “Keep Volunteering Voluntary”.
Three of the largest supporters of other workfare schemes have said they will not accept placements for the six-month scheme – the Conservation Volunteers, the Salvation Army and YMCA England. They are now being urged to go further by pulling out of all workfare programmes and backing Keep Volunteering Voluntary.
Critics of the scheme point out that it will force people to work for more twice the maximum community service sentence for drink-driving.
“On the Work Programme, you are made to feel like a criminal for being unemployed,” said Dave Draper from Derby, who will soon have been unemployed for two years and could be forced on to the new scheme.
He insisted, “These new schemes aren’t about helping people get jobs; they’re about getting people off benefits. Those of us who have to go through them get sick with worry that we can be sanctioned at any time for anything.”
They are other signs that the scheme is in trouble. A response to a Freedom of Information request dated 10 April said that the tender for "Help To Work" was still ongoing, suggesting that the government was struggling to recruit the private providers to run the scheme.
In addition ,the government has been refusing to reveal details to journalists of where placements will take place. The Community Action Programme pilot – a similar workfare scheme to Community Work Placements – found that placements could only be found for 63 per cent of participants.
Keep Volunteering Voluntary was launched by two groups: Boycott Workfare and the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), which campaigns on the freedom of the voluntary sector. With over thirty organisations already signed up, NCIA reported a steady stream of new requests to sign up since the campaign was launched this morning.
“With Community Work Placements, charities that have a genuine desire to help people could end up exploiting them instead,” said NCIA's Andy Benson, “We must not be naïve.”
Benson described the scheme as “the latest attempt to co-opt voluntary groups into doing ministers’ dirty work for them”. He added, “We want real jobs and real volunteering, not real exploitation.”
In another blow for ministers this morning, Anti-Slavery International accused the government of hypocrisy for promoting workfare at the same time as condemning modern slavery.
“It’s remarkable that, in spite of its stated ambition to become a world leader in the struggle against slavery including a new 'modern slavery bill', the British government continues with its 'workfare' schemes to force labour from vulnerable workers for the benefit of wealthy businesses,” said Adrian McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International.
He added, “It represents the British government failing in its responsibilities towards its own citizens and undermining its stated principles to boot.”
Christian groups to back Keep Volunteering Voluntary include the Ekklesia thinktank, the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and Christianity Uncut. They point out that church leaders have recently highlighted the link between benefit sanctions and food bank use. They are urging all Christian organisations to make the next step by opposing workfare.
Organisations wishing to sign up to Keep Volunteering Voluntary can do so at http://www.keepvolunteeringvoluntary.net.