“There is a work experience scheme…it’s voluntary.”
“All of the evidence we can see is that this does better than simply leaving people on JSA. It actually helps more young people get into work.”
There’s been a lot of anger, and a lot of confusion, about so-called “workfare” in recent weeks.
A string of large companies have scrambled to distance themselves from accusations that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is using the unemployed as a source of free labour for its cronies in the private sector.
In an interview with the BBC on Friday morning the Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, defended the government’s flagship welfare-to-work policies.
Are young people really being forced into doing slave labour at greedy supermarkets? Or should Britain’s unemployed by grateful for the chance to do valuable work experience?
Mr Grayling was keen to make a distinction between two different kinds of work placement that the Department of Work and Pensions offers.
The first one is called work experience and is available for people aged 16 to 24 who are claiming jobseeker’s allowance.
Unemployed people do unpaid work at one of hundreds of private sector employers who have signed up to the scheme, while continuing to get their benefits and travel expenses.
Mr Grayling insists the scheme is “entirely voluntary”.
That’s technically true, on the face of it, but it comes with two heavy qualifications.
Firstly, you do run the risk of having your benefits stopped if you agree to do a placement, then change your mind after a “cooling-off” period of one week.
So much like the French Foreign Legion, the scheme is “entirely voluntary” to enter, but there may be an element of compulsion later on if you decide to leave.
And there have been unproven allegations that Jobcentre staff are misleading claimants into believing that the work experience scheme is in fact mandatory.
Cait Reilly, the unemployed graduate who is taking the government to the high court over workfare, says she was told her benefit payments could be stopped if she refused to work at Poundland, and wasn’t told about the cooling-off period.
Mr Grayling said the government disputes the facts of Ms Reilly’s case, and we’ll have to wait for the judge’s ruling before we know what the rights and wrongs of it are.
Does work experience help you get a job?
Mr Grayling told the BBC: “11 weeks after the first day of their work experience, around 50 per cent are off benefits and we know that a large number of those young people actually are staying on in employment with the employers who give them the placement.”
The figures that back this up are here. This is an early study on a very small group of people (1,300) who went on the work experience scheme just after it was set up last year, but it does prove Mr Grayling right, in that 47 per cent of the claimants were off benefits 11 weeks after they started the placement.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all those people got a job – it could be that some returned to education, started a training scheme, or just dropped out of the benefits system.
And the obvious next question is: how many of them would have come off benefits anyway if they hadn’t done work experience?
The Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion says the average rate at which people come off benefits with no intervention is almost exactly the same, suggesting work experience has had “no additional impact on the speed at which young people leave benefit, and may have actually led to them spending longer on benefit”.
This may not be an entirely fair comparison, as those being offered work experience could be people likely to find it harder than the average jobseeker to get work, but it’s not a good start for the government.
Mr Grayling claims that feedback from employers suggests “a large number” of those young people have indeed been offered permanent jobs with the firms who gave them work experience, but DWP say they are not ready to publish data on this.
FactCheck approached a number of companies who are offering voluntary work experience, but only two were prepared to share some numbers with us. Tesco said they’ve given 1,500 young people work experience, and of those, 300 have been given permanent jobs so far.
And the world’s biggest fast food chain told us: “In the last 12 months, close to 200 people have had a work placement and approximately one in four have gone on to a permanent job with McDonald’s.”
So that’s a 20 per cent and 25 per cent success rate respectively for the two firms good enough to talk to us. Of course, it’s possible that people went on to get jobs at different firms after completing work experience.
What about Mr Grayling’s claim that no “big company” would benefit from people who are being made to participate in Mandatory Work Activity?
This is entirely separate from the “voluntary” work experience programme, and sees problem jobseekers ordered to do 30 hours of unpaid work a week for a month, on pain of losing their benefits.
Mr Grayling said the work “might be helping a local sports club with youth outreach work, it might be environmental work”, adding: “There is no circumstance in which we would mandate any individual to take part in work activity for a big company. That doesn’t happen.”
We found this answer to a Freedom of Information request from December which strongly suggests Mr Grayling may be wrong on this one.
DWP use the magic word “mandatory” in the document and they name a number of high street giants including Poundland, Wilkinson’s, ASDA and Pizza Hut as “current delivery placements”.
A spokesman said: “Essentially the Minister was being asked and was talking about the work experience schemes run by JCP – for which his comment is accurate.
“We don’t mandate people to work experience through the Work Programme – we mandate people to take part in the Work Programme. It’s black box so providers have the freedom to suggest work experience if they think it is useful for the person claiming.”
You can read a transcript of Mr Grayling’s interview here and decide for yourself what the minister “was being asked and was talking about”, and whether we’re right to award him a Fiction rating for that last claim.
By Patrick Worrall