Government work experience schemes have sparked a fierce debate in recent months. While the general principle that allowing unemployed people to get work experience with an opportunity to progress to paid employment is a good objective, there have been concerns about companies offering unpaid work experience to benefit claimants.
There are a number of different schemes and they have different rules. For example, the Government’s work experience scheme is voluntary. Those on Jobseeker’s Allowance aged 16 to 24 can volunteer to undertake work experience for between two - eight weeks (25-30 hours a week) once they have been claiming JSA for 13 weeks. Under this scheme claimants continue to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance and must go on looking for work.
There is also a scheme known as Mandatory Work Activity under which Jobcentre Plus advisers can refer someone to a work placement for up to 30 hours a week that is of ‘benefit to the local community’ if they feel a claimant has little or no understanding of the behaviour that someone needs to show in order to get a job and keep it. Normally this can happen at any point from three months into a claim. If referred to Mandatory Work Activity, claimants must take part or they lose their benefit. They could be placed in a wide range of roles, including activity that generates a profit for the employer, as long as there is a clear community benefit. If someone on a Mandatory Work Activity placement fails to turn up without good reason, they will receive a sanction of their Jobseeker’s Allowance payments.
It’s clearly desirable that those without work have an opportunity to get some work experience and be able to contribute to society. Work experience helps to set expectations, gives real experience, helps people get used to workplace routines, can increase skills and open doors to new opportunities. However, this week the Government's back-to-work schemes were found by Appeal Court judges Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Black and Sir Stanley Burnton to be unlawful.
The rules say that claimants may be required to participate in arrangements which may improve their prospects of obtaining remunerative employment. The legal challenge was brought by Caitlin Reilly. The scheme to which Miss Reilly was allocated involved working at Poundland for 25 hours a week. She carried out simple tasks and it became clear that there was no training element. She complained that not only did the scheme not offer any useful experience or an alternative career path, it impeded her voluntary efforts to maintain and advance her primary career ambition (working in a museum). After refusing to work on the scheme she was told that she risked losing her benefits.
Miss Reilly and another claimant both succeeded in their claims that they could not be compelled to participate in unpaid work experience schemes or lose their benefits. This was because the regulations behind the schemes did not comply with the Act of Parliament that gave the DWP the power to introduce the programme. The particular schemes to which the claimants had been allocated did not, “assist [claimants] to obtain employment” or improve “their prospects of obtaining employment” as required by the Act. However, the Appeal Court accepted Mr Justice Foskett’s finding that requiring jobseekers to participate in the scheme did not breach their human rights.
The decision could effectively prevent the Government continuing with the programme in its current form. New rules allowing these unpaid schemes to continue while the Government appeals against the decision have been brought in.
The courts will ultimately judge the Government’s return to work rules. Work experience is invaluable if properly done. Although we’re a small business we always have a few work experience students every year and we make sure they get exposure to every part of the business. We could stand them in front of the shredder, the filing cabinet or the kettle for a week – but we don’t. It’s not fair to them and we would never find out if they had much to offer. (We have had some cracking job applicants from former work experience students.) If employers want to help students get useful exposure and / or job seekers return to work, there needs to be an active engagement between the work experience student (or job seeker as the case may be) and the employer to make sure that both parties benefit from the arrangement.
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