Workfare: Unexpected Intern in the bagging area

The truth of the matter is that the government cares more about statistics than genuinely tackling unemployment.

Children have a terrifically simple way of exploring the limits of adult knowledge. They do so by asking a question, then responding to each new piece of data with “but, why?” The, almost inevitable, ending to this line of questioning is either “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”.

James O’Brien on LBC seems to have elicited similarly impatient but illuminating responses from Iain Duncan Smith on the subject of workfare. Talking about Cait Reilly, who was recently successful in challenging the legality of the state compelling her to take an unpaid placement in Poundlad, Smith declared: “She was paid. What do you think the taxpayer was paying, for God’s sake? Job Seeker’s Allowance? That is what we are paying her to do.”

The interview reveals the dark heart of the matter when it comes to Work Experience, Youth Training Schemes, Mandatory Work Activity, Community Action Programmes and the rest of a panoply of such schemes. Smith ended up describing workfare schemes as “us allowing people to continue to earn their JobSeeker’s Allowance, but also to take experience in companies that allow them to do that.” That’s a lot of allowing; a lot of noblesse oblige.

However one chooses to dress it up, at the core of such policies is the idea that by paying a benefit the state (and by extension the taxpayer) assumes part-ownership of the labour of persons in receipt. I find this position irreconcilable with the ideological basis of a party which believes that the state needs to shrink to as small a size as possible and stand out of the way of individuals who wish to “get on”. The action does not match the rhetoric. What the state is actually doing is buying the labour of millions of people, en masse and below market rate, in order to then contract it out to large and profitable businesses for nothing.

Such schemes do not end the “something for nothing culture”. They simply elevate it to the corporate level. It is a paradox for traditional right-wing commentators who object to funding an individual’s benefits, to appear quite happy to cross-subsidise a huge conglomerate with global revenues of $100bn in 2010.

When opposition to the scheme was first gathering pace, Tesco explained that of the 1,400 people who have been made to serve them (because to use the verb “employ” would require some consideration on the part of Tesco), 300 got a job with the company. This means one of three things, all three very worrying. Either:

  1. Tesco were genuinely trying to fill 1,400 positions, but  were only capable of training roughly one in five people to stack shelves in six weeks. Or:
  2. There were only 300 positions in the first place (probably due to natural turnover, which I imagine is quite high), but Tesco decided they might as well conduct six-week interviews on our buck. Or:
  3. There were 1,400 genuine vacancies in the relevant stores, but why on earth would they fill them with paid employees, when they can have a rolling six-weekly army of 1,400 free ones?

The effectiveness of such schemes is also highly contentious. The government commissioned its own research before implementation. It concluded:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. Subsidised (“transitional”) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than “work for benefit” programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

Perhaps most importantly, these schemes are a state-form of denial; a particularly egregious case of ostrichism. We know from an official response to a parliamentary question that the Office for National Statistics includes people on such unpaid schemes in their data as “employed”. Such schemes are being rolled out on a massive scale. 370,000 unemployed were referred to the Work Programme in the first few months of its existence. Over a million people are expected to be caught by Community Action Schemes. The manipulation of statistics at such a scale may go some way to explaining the continuing disparity between rising “employment” and stagnating or contracting GDP.

Policy on these schemes has become axiomatic. It has become the art of “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”. It has done so in the face of evidence to the contrary, creationist in its resistance to the truth. There is an overwhelmingly idiotic assumption at its basis; that the reason 2.5m jobless will not fit into 500,000 vacancies, is not mathematics, but a lack of willingness on their part. How can the state tackle unemployment if it is unaware of how many people are genuinely unemployed, where they are and which industries they are trying to find work in?

All this lays bare a stark fact: the Government is interested in the figures looking good, rather than genuinely tackling unemployment. For how can one solve a problem by hiding it in dark statistical recesses and denying it exists? With increasing job insecurity, that is something that should concern us all, regardless political persuasion.


Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.