Disability charity becomes fourth to exit mandatory work scheme amid fears sick benefit claimants will be forced into unpaid jobs
A major government programme to get people back into work has faced further setback after another major charity told the Guardian it was pulling out in response to a new policy to force sick and disabled benefit claimants into unpaid work.
Following on from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research and Age UK, Scope has become the fourth high street charity to withdraw from the government’s mandatory work Activity (MWA) programme during the past five weeks.
Since the scheme began in May last year more than 33,000 unemployed people have been made to work for 30 hours a week for a month, unpaid, under the threat of being stripped of their benefits. That sanction can last for up to three years. Recently published Department for Work and Pensions research found that organisations which have been administering the MWA scheme on behalf of job centres have found it difficult to find places with employers.
With the exit of four high street charities, which between them take hundreds of placements a month, the scheme’s capacity to provide work experience is likely to come under significant strain.
Richard Hawkes, Scope’s chief executive, said the charity, which supports disabled people and their families in England and Wales, was “forced” to drop out of all mandatory work schemes because of the DWP’s new policy to permit sick and disabled benefit claimants to be forced into unpaid work.
On 3 December, the DWP gave job centre and work programme case managers the power to mandate those claiming the employment and support allowance (ESA), who had been categorised as unfit to work at this time, into work experience without a time limit, as long as placements were deemed appropriate. Those in the ESA work-related-activity group include cancer patients, stroke victims and people with mental health issues.
Hawkes said: “These moves do not feel like they have been designed around what disabled people need to find work.”
Scope, which ran 130 placements a month across 240 charity shops, said mandatory work experience was of real benefit, but it had in place various checks and balances to ensure job seekers did not feel forced to work in its shops.
“We have always been very conscious of concerns about mandatory work experience. We continued with it because we found that the people on placements in our charity shops had really positive experiences,” Hawkes said. “People tell us they really value the chance to do work experience in our shops. It’s a chance to learn retail and customer service skills, build confidence and get used to being in a working environment.
“The news that ESA claimants, often out-of-work disabled people who need specialist support to get back into work, are now being included … has forced us to once again review our involvement, We have therefore taken the decision to withdraw from these placements entirely.” Another charity who administer MWA placements on behalf of private companies has confirmed that it is sending the unemployed to work in profit making businesses.
Sue Pearson from the trading arm of the The Conservation Volunteers charity said they operated three MWA contracts. In one contract area, Derbyshire they had a database of 200 organisations which allowed them to place 589 jobseekers in sectors ranging from construction, business administration, retail, hotel and leisure to food preparation this year.
Pearson, TCV’s Business Development Manager for Yorkshire and East Midlands, said that one MWA placement was at a food preparation factory but jobseekers were asked to “gather up recycling materials” in accordance with DWP rules that all forced placements must be “for community benefit”.
Pearson added that TCV, which makes over £19m from running such education and training contracts, only ever organise placements “where both parties are happy” and never referred jobseekers to work in their own charity.
In response to Scope’s withdrawal from the scheme a DWP spokesperson said: “Mandatory work activity placements have been shown to have a real impact on participants’ motivation, and confidence about being ready and able to work. This is a key step to helping the long-term unemployed move off benefits and into a job.
“We are grateful for the continued support of the wider charitable sector in helping unemployed people re-engage with the system and move closer to work. Scope’s decision is entirely a matter for them.”
Joanna Long, a member of Boycott Workfare which campaigns for the cessation of unpaid work tied to benefits, welcomed Scopes withdrawal from the scheme, but warned it had information that MWA placements were still taking place in charities that had promised to quit the scheme.
“It is a disgrace that charities are putting claimants at risk of exploitation and sanctions through workfare. That charities have also been dishonest about their involvement adds insult to injury. We know that charities who claim to have withdrawn are still using workfare.
“We will judge Scope and others by their actions not their words. No one wants to support a charity or business that puts sick, disabled and unemployed people to work without pay on threat of destitution, and that is why workfare schemes will ultimately collapse.”