Saturday, 25 February 2012

The 'Workfare' Debate And The Needs Of Real People

We’ve got this idiot government on the run again.
This time it’s over workfare – work-slavery, as it’s been stigmatised.

A Government on the back foot
Actually, the whole fracas (or, more appropriately, ‘frack-arse’, as Alf Garnett used to say) arose over an error. Job Centre Plus advertised a ‘permanent’ night-shift job at Tesco, with wages of Job Seekers’ Allowance + travel, and the world went mad.
I have never managed a ‘scoop’ before, but I did so on this one. I smelled a rat, and I tracked it down, and yes – as Tesco later announced – it was a mistake.
It was a two-night-only work experience, and part of a scheme called ‘Sector-Based Work Academies’ – a hyperbole of a title if ever there was one for a scheme which gives you two days at college, two days of work experience and a guaranteed job interview at the end.
I tweeted and emailed round some of the 'important people' but no one was interested.
They ‘had’ the government on this one.

But to be fair, it isn’t hard, is it?
This inept, pampered, arrogant set of millionaire public schoolboys breezed in thinking it would be SO easy, and indulged in a veritable tsunami of legislation … which is now turning out to be the most ill-thought-out, incompetent, un-implementable load of tripe ever to hit the statute books.
Everywhere – planning, welfare, NHS – opponents and protestors are making mincemeat of the Tories, who simply have proved unable to cope with the twitter-storm.

The Tesco workfare faux-scandal was typical. First it trended on twitter. Then it wasn’t long before there were mobs outside Tesco. Tesco buckled, and withdrew from the scheme.
There followed a whole load of blogs and tweets naming other companies … who buckled in their turn
– as Sunny Hundal enthused:
“XXXXXXX have sent out a statement saying they're ‘reviewing’ their Workfare arrangements, but no decision yet. Keep up the pressure!”

Add in the A4E scandal, and you have a government on the back foot.
The only response they could manage was an inept rant by Chris Grayling which gave the Socialist Workers Party more publicity than it had managed in the last decade. All his attempt to smear the workfare campaign as ‘a front for the Socialist Workers Party’ achieved was to propel it onto Radio 4.

The Right was on the run and you can sense the glee in Sunny Hundal’s crowing tweet:
“The joy of attacking Workfare is that it *really* winds up right-wingers & their fantasies of poor people working for free for big companies”

Peter’s Story
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Mr Hundal and the SWP, I have to say that I was disappointed by that tweet.
There are REAL issues and actual people involved here, and it ISN’T just a political game.

Because – when it comes to workfare – we need to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Let me introduce you to Peter; he is 17 years of age now.
(‘Peter’, of course, is a fiction and a composite – but if you talk to any teacher or youth worker they will be able to show you dozens of ‘Peters’.)

When Peter came to Secondary School he was living with his aunt. He was less able, but full of life, with a vein of mischievousness which it was impossible not to like – he was what teachers used to call (before it became politically incorrect) a ‘daft lad’.

Towards the end of Year 9, Peter left home after conflict with his aunt and went to live with an unmarried uncle; the situation rapidly lapsed into more-or-less neglect.
For more than a year, we hardly saw Peter at school at all – any attempt at an education was pointless.

Then, halfway through Year 11, Peter returned, smart and clean! He was back with aunt, and he had decided to turn his life around.
School fell on him with a vengeance. Learning assistants worked him through COPE and ALaN courses. After a whirlwind of support, Peter left school at 16 with five GCSEs at C+ (a PE BTEC and COPE Level 2), plus GCSEs in English (F) and Maths (D).

Did we fail Peter? At school, Peter received bucketloads of positive support and affection, and a stability which was absent from the rest of his life. Peter is genuinely appreciative.
But if you were to accuse us of teaching him that there is always a second chance … or that if you can’t be bothered, a nice person will coax and cajole and half-do it for you … well, I don’t know whether I would protest too much.

Peter has never worked since he left school. He is a ‘NEET’. He is also bored; he spends a lot of time hanging round the youth centre and his local community hub, desperate to ‘do jobs’ – stack the chairs, tidy the cupboards.
If you ask him, he is still ‘at home’ (with aunt) but rarely stays there – he dosses round his friends’ homes at night. He is on the fringe of, and slowly being sucked into, a really nasty criminal gang.

What Peter needs – what his aunt is desperate for him to get – is a steady job.

Peter has NONE of the skills or attitudes which might fit him for a job. He is desperately immature, and prone to random, inexplicable acts of irresponsible behaviour. His attention-span is limited. But he is a personable chap, his time-keeping is good, and he LOVES praise and takes a sense of achievement from completing even the most limited, routine tasks.

Peter does NOT need ‘a living wage’ of £240+ a week. He is probably never going to have one anyway. He has spent the last decade going to school every day for free. £53.45 is actually ample for his needs aged 17, which are merely to be able to give an allowance to his aunt, and provide him with some spending money for the weekends.

What Peter DESPERATELY needs is something to fill his days constructively.
He needs a supportive and patient employer, who will demand that he turns up on time, insist that he finishes his work, and who gives him unskilled tasks within his abilities. He needs something which gives him a reason to get up in the morning, and sends him home tired and proud of himself at night.

And, given time, Peter could turn out to be a fine, upstanding ‘working-class man’.

What place Workfare?
It has become quite clear in the last few days that the government’s current varying workfare schemes are all useless and unworkable.
What use is a fortnight stacking shelves?
What use is a two-day course at college?
What use is providing zero-cost short-term labour to supermarkets?
… Peter needs A JOB, not a scheme.

And at the risk of losing my left-wing friends altogether at one fell swoop, I am not averse to some form of ‘workfare’ scheme to give him one.

It is simply the socialist principle of the command economy, which directs resources to where they are needed.
We have hospitals with filthy wards because nobody can afford to clean them.
We have millions of old people who cannot maintain their own gardens or spring-clean their rooms.
We have cash-strapped Councils paying millions for high-tech machines to do the work of dozens of people they have laid off.
Throughout the country we have hedges that need laying, dry-stone walls that need rebuilding, ponds that need clearing etc. etc.
We have a milliard societal and environmental tasks which simply are not getting done…
And we have nigh on a million teenagers, most of them fit and full of energy, whom we are giving £53.45 a week to sit on their backsides ‘looking for jobs’ which EVERYBODY can see do not exist.

It is sheer lunacy.

Controversially, I do not see any obligation on the state to maintain an able-bodied person in worklessness ... in idleness, to use the 19th century word. I do not see a human right to sit at home contributing nothing to society whilst receiving a basic standard of living as a gift.
What I DO advocate is the RIGHT to work, and the duty of the state to provide a suitable job if there is not one anywhere else, so that I might thereby be able to make a meaningful contribution to society.

It will need safeguards on all sides. The Unions must be proactively involved. There will have to be tough discussions on remuneration.
But surely it is not beyond the wit of man to put two and two together on this one?


  1. Totally agree, I even asked last year if those on community service orders could clear ice and snow from pensioners paths this could be done by people on workfare which would be constructive use of the time and energy win win

  2. This is an interesting comment from Daniel Knowles:

  3. Great article here - - from the TUC Touchstone blog.

  4. 'Peter does NOT need ‘a living wage’ of £240+ a week'. not asking for that John,how about and heres a radical idea!,how bout the employers taking kids on and topping the benefit up to the NMW ,its only £3.68 - the 16-17 rate for workers above school leaving age but under 18,hardly going bankrupt the likes of Tesco,Asda etc,and afore anyone accuses me of being a job snob,at 19 I had wife and 2 kids,and cleaned shit tanks on subs in Rosyth Dockyard,but guess what?...........i was paid for it.