Too posh to shelve?

‘What a snotty so-and-so. She seemed to say that she shouldn’t stack shelves because she was too intelligent.’

That was the reaction of Ian Duncan-Smith, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, to one of the critics of his ‘Work Experience’ scheme. Ministers and others have been out across the media in the last few days pushing this view. When I asked a question about this back in November I got a similar brush off:

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Will the Minister comment on reports that even young people with qualifications are being sent for 13 weeks of shelf stacking? What sort of experience is that giving them?

Chris Grayling: I am always very disappointed to hear Members attacking major employers such as our supermarkets. A few months ago I met a man who had been long-term unemployed, who was given a job at one of our major supermarkets and who, within a few months, had graduated to running a department of 20. These are major employers with good opportunities, and we are about giving young people a start in life.

Is work experience always a bad thing – absolutely not! But what we have to get back to is the purpose of all of this. Work experience is supposed to help people become more employable. At its basic level it can be a ‘taster’ of what it is like to work, to come in at a fixed time and follow a routine, for those who’ve never worked or have not done so for a very long time. It can be an introduction to different types of workplace to give people ideas of where they might be able to find jobs (much school work experience is of the latter kind – a week in a work not school environment).

But going back to the critic lambasted by Ian Duncan-Smith, she had done shop work on several previous occasions, as holiday jobs etc. She didn’t need a four week shelf stacking experience to tell her what to do. She would be immediately ‘qualified’ for any ‘proper’ shop jobs going – although perhaps as a university graduate she might find herself being turned down on the grounds of being over-qualified by firms who fear such employees won’t stick around long. Now one can argue the separate issue of whether she should have been applying for such paid employment (should people on benefit apply for any job not just those they are qualified for?) but it is highly doubtful that four weeks of ‘work experience’ of this kind was going to add to her employability.

Then there is the big question mark over large, and highly profitable firms potentially being able to use the unpaid work of successive ‘work experience’ people to do jobs others would normally be paid for. There are only so many shelves that can be filled and labels stuck on, so if there are these extra pairs of hands around who is now ‘surplus’ to requirements? People on ‘zero hours’ or ‘low hours’ contracts who would like extra hours if available may well be missing out.

The Government keeps asserting that this scheme has been successful in placing half the participants in jobs. But despite the scheme running for a year no actual statistics have been published on outcomes. Tesco have said that of 1400 participants 400 got jobs. Of course some might have got jobs elsewhere. But without real data we have no means of knowing. I’ve just submitted a written parliamentary question asking for figures.

There can be very useful work experience. In Edinburgh, initially at Gracemount High School and later in others we devised a scheme (calle JET) for pupils likely to reach schoool leaving age with no qualifications (often due to very poor attendance). The school curriculum was reduced to 3 days in the week, with one day of work experience across the whole school year and one day in college doing training relevant to the work placement.

For people with health issues or disabilities a work experience placement can help build confidence – and at the same time overcome employer hesitations about employing people with additional needs. There are specialist employment organisations who have very good programmes in place, but they need to be well structured and supported.

And above all else in the current economic climate let’s not forget that no matter how good the training there just aren’t thejobs out there. The Government’s emphasis on schemes like this as being ‘the answer’ to unemployment neatly shift the responsibility onto the unemployed themselves.

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So we thought there was an unemployment problem

Silly us. We thought there was an unemployment problem but Minister for the Disabled People Maria Miller wants people to know ‘there are around 476,000 job vacancies out there’ – see her letter to the Guardian from 17 February. So therefore the ‘problem’ is either people ‘trapped by benefits’ into not working or lacking the skills, which can be solved by the Work Programme.

Sorry Maria – before the recession there were typically around 700,000 job centre advertised vacancies at any one time. There are always – even in recession – vacancies due to natural turnover (people retiring, falling sick, moving into education, into other jobs).

But just now there are fewer.

And the number of people not working and looking for work – the ‘unemployment’ figure – is up.

That’s not to say that training opportunities aren’t important, but the Work Programme doesn’t create jobs (except maybe for ‘job advisers’). It may help some people get the chance of some of the jobs that are ‘out there’, which might otherwise have gone to someone who has been unemployed for less time so not on the Work Programme. That’s good news for the successful jobseeker – not so good for all of the others.

So here’s just one idea – how about investing in building more affordable homes, creating an asset, putting building workers back to work, providing apprenticeships and helping boost demand in local economies? Oh and it will help cut the Housing Benefit Bill too by reducing the need for poor people to be pushed into the private rented sector.

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Bedroom tax to go ahead

Last year I wrote about a proposal the Coalition government had which would take away part of housing benefit for council and housing association tenants who were living in houses with ‘spare bedrooms’. Then the House of Lords stepped in and said this should not apply where there was only one spare bedroom and that even in cases with two or more spare bedrooms the tenant would only have benefit reduced if he or she refused a reasonable offer of an alternative house.

Writing this in early February 2012 I have to report that the Coalition Government has succeeded in overturning the House of Lords.

The Government has claimed this is more about easing the shortage of larger houses for families by getting other people to move to smaller houses. But in most areas the smaller houses aren’t easily available and it would take years to achieve all the necessary moves. In the meantime people losing their jobs and forced to claim benefit will be penalised until they are able to move. And anyway why should tenants be forced to move from their own homes – homes they may have decorated and furnished? Why should they leave their neighbourhoods where they may well have friends and family or work? Many tenants too may have a need for a spare room for family who visit, to allow grandchildren to stay the night, for an occasional carer to stay over. Many MPs as well as Peers argued all of this but the Government refused to give way. Whenever Housing Benefit ‘reforms’ are debated the Government seeks to justify them by talking about the high level of some private sector rents, especially in London. But this proposal applies to the much cheaper council and housing association sector and to places where even private rents are nothing like the levels seen in London.

Of course if all tenants affected successfully ‘downsized’ there would be no saving in the benefit bill.

So what does this mean?

  • The new rules don’t come in until 2013.
  • The new rules only apply to people of working age, not those over pension age.
  • Councils do have some extra funding called ‘Discretionary Housing Payments’ which they could choose to use to help some people out at least for a time. But the total of these payments is much less than the total amount being cut from housing benefit. Tenants affected next year should however ask about this.
  • Councils could make it easier for those who want to move to do so by giving extra priority to those affected – but even with priority turnover in some areas is very limited.

Already I understand the Council is warning new single person or couple applicants considering accepting a 2 bed house that if they claim housing benefit they would lose money next year. The trouble is that one of the reasons that the Council has over many years allowed single people to move into 2 bedroom houses is that there are more 2 bed houses and flats available. So people looking to be housed may end up waiting even longer than now.

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