Government backs down over work experience scheme

Employers warn that benefits sanctions send the wrong message.
UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling
The row over removing benefits from people who drop out of a controversial government work experience scheme ended yesterday after ministers agreed to change the rules.

Under the scheme, unemployed people signed up voluntarily to do unpaid work, but were at risk of losing their benefits if they did not complete the full four-week programme. This led it to be likened to “forced labour” by some critics.

Pressure to drop the ‘benefits sanctions’ element of the scheme has grown over recent weeks as the media suggested that employers were cashing in on the labour of people who had no choice but to remain on the programme.

And after employers met with employment minister Chris Grayling yesterday and expressed concerns about the punitive side of the scheme, the minister confirmed that the scheme would be modified in order to send a more positive message.

Grayling told the Guardian: “The employers said to us: ‘Look we would like to modify it. At the moment you’ve got a situation where people can leave voluntarily after the first week. We would like them to be able to sit down later with us in the work placement if it’s not working out and say we want to opt out.’ We thought that was reasonable. We want to keep the scheme going. It is a positive scheme for young people and so we said fine, we will accept that.”

The minister also revealed that more employers had signed up to take on work experience volunteers, including Airbus, Center Parcs and HP Enterprise Services.

“Despite the persistent [media] campaign of the last two weeks we have had contact with over 200 small or medium enterprises also wanting to get involved. The work experience scheme remains and is totally voluntary,” he said.

Grayling said that a “sanction regime remains in place” to give employers some protection against acts of gross misconduct by volunteers but this does not refer to penalties for dropping out of the scheme.

Katerina Rudiger, CIPD skills policy adviser, said: “We hope this announcement will draw a line under what has always been a distraction from the real debate; the crucial role quality work experience can play in helping people with no experience and particular challenges in finding work.

Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director, said: “It’s good to hear that many more employers are signing up to give young people a chance to get experience of work.

“Gaining hands on experience of the workplace is vital to giving young jobseekers a foot in the door, and it can make such a difference when they are applying for interviews. The advantage of this scheme is that they gain work experience while remaining on benefits.

“The work experience scheme’s record of getting people into jobs is very strong, with more than half coming off benefits after 13 weeks of starting a placement.”

Despite criticism of employers for “exploiting” work experience volunteers, last month PM revealed that many of the employers named as taking on placements, including Sainsbury’s and Waterstones, were not in fact signed up to the scheme but were involved in a programme that people could leave without facing financial penalties.

Claire Churchard
1 Mar 2012
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