We FactChecked several claims made by Chris Grayling over the controversial topic of “workfare” last week.
Mr Grayling mounted a defence of the policy of mandating the unemployed to do short unpaid work placements – forcing them to work for free on pain of losing their benefits.
The Employment Minister said the government’s Work Experience scheme, aimed at young people, was voluntary not mandatory.
Another scheme run by the government’s Jobcentre Plus network called Mandatory Work Activity was compulsory, as the name suggests, but no “big company” would benefit from it by getting cheap labour, he insisted.
We found this response to a Freedom of Information request that strongly suggested he was wrong about that.
Avanta, one of the companies contracted by the government to deliver the Work Programme, made it pretty clear in this document that they were setting up “mandatory work placements” for unemployed people with the likes of Poundland, Asda and Pizza Hut.
Now you can see the FoI response by clicking on that link, but if you search for the document on the Department of Work and Pensions website, all you get is: “Sorry, that page cannot be found.”
At the time, we thought we’d give DWP the benefit of the doubt on that missing link. After all, things do go wrong with the internet from time to time.
But since then, our attention has been drawn to another case of strange goings-on with the online information published by the department.
We’re grateful to a reader, Anton, for pointing out something strange that’s since been seized on by several bloggers.
Anton spotted that the guidance DWP publishes for providers of the Work Programme changed suddenly on Friday.
The Work Programme is completely separate to Work Experience and Mandatory Work Activity. It’s not run directly by the government and it wasn’t what Mr Grayling was talking about last week.
Under the Work Programme, private companies are contracted to try to help the long-term unemployed get off benefits, and are given quite a lot of freedom to operate as they see fit. One of the options is to organise unpaid work experience.
But DWP does publish “guidance” for those companies setting out rules on how they are supposed to deal with job seekers, and that’s what has suddenly changed.
Luckily, Anton saved a cached copy of the document, which used to tell prime contractors this:
At some point on Friday, hours after Mr Grayling appeared on BBC radio to make those contentious claims about government-run Work Experience, paragraph 14 mysteriously disappeared and the remaining sections were renumbered.
The change was made quietly, and without explanation. Note that the updated version is still tagged as “V2.00″, with no reference to the update.
While the debate on whether the Work Experience programme being run directly by DWP is really “entirely voluntary” continues to rage, we didn’t think there was any doubt that work experience under the auspices of the Work Programme WAS mandatory.
Now the government seems to have cast some doubt on that by suddenly dropping that key paragraph.
So is this a climbdown? Is the government trying to tell Work Programme providers to soften their approach after the controversy of recent days over mandatory work experience for the short-term unemployed?
We thought that was the obvious question, but DWP doesn’t feel able to answer it.
A spokesman told FactCheck: “The changes to the website were just part of a regular update. We regularly revise documents for clarity purposes.”
When pushed on whether that meant that the instruction to mandate participants is no longer government policy, she wasn’t able to provide any more “clarity” other than to say: “I’m not saying the advice is wrong.”
That’s a bit of a problem, because if the advice ISN’T wrong, but HAS been taken down, doesn’t that mean that Work Programme providers are now in danger of breaking the rules on the National Minimum Wage Regulations, as the government took great pains to flag up originally in the missing paragraph?
Confusion reigns, and despite repeated phone calls and several days to think about it, DWP has declined to clarify the situation.
The spokesman did tell us that the apparently damning FoI answer had been taken down because it contained an error (“one of the names of the companies was wrong”).
And the timing of all this was pure coincidence, the spokesman insisted.
So a document emphasising the “mandatory” nature of Work Programme work experience happened to disappear from the department’s website just as the controversy over whether other schemes were mandatory was raging in the headlines.
Or in any event, that’s DWP’s story and they’re sticking to it.
By Patrick Worrall