‘Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper’ by Jim Duffy

‘Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper’

The words are George Orwell’s, but they could just as easily have been those of 22 year-old Cait Reilly. In the week of 9th January 2012, Cait filed judicial review proceedings challenging the sort of State approach to maximising employment that Orwell prophesised. Her stand against what she argues to be an unfair, unpaid compulsory labour scheme seemed all the braver by the time The Daily Mail had finished with her. For them, this was a young, middle-class upstart who considered herself too good for Poundland.

The reality is much different. Cait is one of a quarter of a million unemployed people who will, by the end of the year, have found themselves on the end of the Coalition’s drive to ‘Get Britain Working’ and required to carry out between two weeks and six months of unpaid work under one of a plethora of complex schemes elaborated administratively and without Parliamentary scrutiny.

Cait graduated from the University of Birmingham in July 2010 intent on forging a career in museums. In the meantime, she claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), sought paid work and was eventually able through the now-defunct ‘Future Jobs Fund’ to obtain valuable work experience at The Pen Room, a Birmingham museum. When her six-month paid placement ended, Cait decided to continue on a voluntary basis and once again claimed JSA while she looked for paid work. She is conscious of the need for extensive work experience in her chosen field.

In October 2011, her Jobcentre Plus adviser informed her of an ‘opportunity’ to attend an open day at which retail jobs would be available. She attended having been told that it could lead to a week’s training followed by a guaranteed job interview. When she discovered at the open day that what was on offer involved six weeks of training, Cait decided that this would take her away from her important voluntary work for too long. Her adviser’s tone changed, and what was previously described as an opportunity had suddenly hardened into a ‘mandatory’ requirement. If Cait failed to attend, her JSA would be reduced or withdrawn.

Cait then spent a week in a classroom being told by a training company how to dress, greet people and become more employable. There then followed two weeks at Poundland where no training or direction was offered and, crucially, no pay. Cait, who already has retail experience, was simply told to sweep floors and to stack shelves. Neither the ‘guaranteed’ job interview or the promised City & Guilds retail certificate ever materialised. Meanwhile, many supermarket employees apparently found in the run-up to Christmas that overtime work was suddenly hard to come by as a result of an influx of unpaid jobseekers.

It was not until Cait instructed us to bring a legal action that she found that she had been involved in a ‘sector-based work academy’, as opposed to ‘work experience’, or the ‘work programme’, or a ‘Mandatory Work Activity Scheme’, or the ‘Community Action Programme’ (CAP). She then realised she was perhaps one of the lucky ones – Public Interest Lawyers acts for another individual who has been required to undertake a full six months’ unpaid work under the CAP.

With youth unemployment figures at their highest level in 17 years, the Government faces a monumental challenge in getting people back to work. In addressing that crisis, it has chosen to import the same model of ‘Workfare’ attempted previously in the United States. Before setting up the array of schemes that Public Interest Lawyers is now challenging, the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned expert research that examined Workfare in the USA, Canada and Australia. Two of its main conclusions ought to have put the brakes on the political temptation to get the proles working, pay or no pay:

‘There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers’; and ‘Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.’

Yet, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has created the UK’s own Workfare programme in the weakest labour market since 1996, without the required prescription of what the schemes entail or those to whom they apply, either within the Regulations or any published policy. As such, he has arguably exceeded his powers under the Jobseekers Act 1995, granting near omnipotence to the Jobcentre Plus adviser, who is henceforth empowered to determine what is good for the Jobseeker, even if it means what is arguably ‘forced or compulsory labour’ under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Notwithstanding the lack of clear criteria or guidance, what we do know is that these schemes are not for the maligned ‘somethingfor- nothing’ generation of unemployed not complying with their jobseeking conditions – the DWP is clear that such individuals must continue to receive the appropriate sanction of JSA withdrawal and are ineligible for these schemes. Yet, no one seems to have told the Employment Minister this: ‘It is a nonsense to suggest we should just be leaving them on benefits without making a real effort to find work.’

In fact, Cait would welcome paid work at Poundland or anywhere else that would afford her the luxury of living off more than £53 per week. Her experience, however, suggests that coercive schemes that require people to carry out work over which they have no choice and for which they are not remunerated is unlikely to bring an end to their unemployment.

Cait Reilly hopes to make the Government think again and work with young unemployed people, who perhaps ought to be seen as victims rather than culprits of the financial crisis. An approach that instead empowers and equips them, tailored to draw upon their skills and plug their skills gaps, might ensure that they not only enter the paid job market but stay there.

Jim Duffy is a Solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers