John Downie: The Work Programme is about handouts to business, not jobs for people

John Downie. Picture: Contributed
John Downie. Picture: Contributed
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MINISTERS said they were “disappointed and surprised” after university graduate Cait Reilly won her Court of Appeal claim that forcing her to work for free at a Poundland discount store or lose her benefits was unlawful.

For anyone who has come into contact with the thousands who are being let down by the UK government’s Work Programme, it’s just more proof of what we’ve known all along – the programme is failing on all counts.

It exploits people desperately seeking employment. It marginalises charities and voluntary organisations in favour of lining the pockets of private companies to the tune of millions. It shows absolutely no understanding of the needs of employers or unemployed people to the point that it’s a disincentive to creating real jobs.

Why would any employer hire someone when the government will offer you someone for nothing?

Now that the back-to-work schemes have been deemed to be in breach of the law, you’d be forgiven for presuming that they would finally be consigned to history. Sadly, that won’t be the case. You can bet that the coalition government will challenge the courts, rewrite the rules and continue to let unemployed people down.

The Work Programme was doomed to fail for many reasons. Perhaps its most fundamental flaw is that it was designed for the economic conditions prior to the financial crisis.

This compares to the approach taken by the Scottish Government. Its employability strategy is far from perfect but at least it gets the point that to secure long-term employment, you need to create a jobs programme where people are given a real paid job.

That’s exactly what Community Jobs Scotland has achieved. By offering young unemployed people a paid job for six months at minimum or living wage, it has produced very positive long-terms results: 57 per cent of the young people involved have moved on to positive destinations – 42 per cent found permanent jobs, 6 per cent went into further or higher education and 9 per cent into volunteering.

It works because these young people are getting the break they need. They’re not being forced to work for free. They are not being exploited so that private companies make millions on the back of the misery of worklessness.

But that’s all we get from the Work Programme. No wonder only 3.5 per cent of the people on it are finding a job.

As the UK government braces itself for compensation claims from people who have been coerced into these placements or had their meagre benefits removed, I have one plea: put the Work Programme out of its misery. We’re all paying for the main private sector contractors to make money despite failing to help people to find jobs. The time to abandon it is long overdue.

• John Downie is director of public affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Services