The questions that must be answered over the unpaid stewards

Is the Work Programme fit for purpose?

As this Bank Holiday weekend drew to a soggy close, the story begun to emerge of how 80 unemployed people from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth were bussed to London to "work" as stewards for Sunday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant.

Fifty of them were on "apprenticeships" and would be paid £2.80 an hour. The rest were on the Government’s Work Programme, and they’d been led to believe by Close Protection UK, the company they were providing stewarding services for, that they’d be paid for the work. Some had even signed off in anticipation. But then Tomorrow’s People, the charity running the Work Programme in their area, told them it was ‘work experience’ and they wouldn’t be paid. Some of them didn’t find this out until they boarded the coach to London, with the tents and sleeping bags they’d been told to bring with them. They arrived in London at 3am Sunday morning, and were left by the roadside. 20 minutes later they were shown under London Bridge and told that’s where they could camp until their shifts began at 5.30am. But they couldn’t pitch their tents on the concrete and it was too cold and wet to sleep. Their "work experience" consisted of standing for hours in the pouring rain, shivering in the inadequate clothing provided, doing virtually nothing as they’d not really been told what to do. A marked contrast to the splendour of the pageantry itself.

The director of Close Protection, Mary Prince, by the way, initially said that the "London Bridge" was a mistake, that the coaches shouldn’t have driven off and left them there. But in that case, why were they told to bring tents? And what were the drivers supposed to have done with them? Mary Prince also said that the only people who weren’t paid were ‘the ones who didn’t want to be paid’ because they’d lose their benefits.

The steward I spoke to yesterday had been on the Work Programme with Tomorrow’s People for a year, but apart from occasional sessions with an adviser (she’s on her third, as they keep leaving) ‘nothing had happened’ until March this year when she was put on the NVQ Level 2 in stewarding. She’d already done a stint of unpaid work experience in late March. I don’t think she was much impressed by the quality of training but she’d stuck with it, hoping to get paid work. Close Protection had said they’d pay the jubilee stewards £450, and it would lead to well-paid stewarding work at the Olympics. But she ended up calling home in tears and being rescued by a relative, after 36 hours without sleep, soaking wet and without being paid a penny for it.

Those are the basic facts that I’ve been told, and that have been reported in the Guardian and on a blog by Eddie Gillard, but the real questions remain to be answered. Here are just some of them.

Is the Work Programme fit for purpose? Is it actually providing training and work experience that will equip people for the world of work, and if not, what is the DWP actually paying  charities such as Tomorrow’s People to do? What monitoring is there of the Work Programme; what scrutiny of its outcomes? Where do you draw the line between giving people work experience they would otherwise not have had, and exploiting them as cheap or unpaid labour? Are these real apprenticeships? (Polly Toynbee among others has written about how this government’s much vaunted apprenticeships are simply rebadged Train to Gain or other lesser schemes, and not what would have in the past have been regarded as proper apprentice training).

What was the relationship between Tomorrow’s People and Close Protection UK? £1.5 million was allocated to pay for security at the jubilee pageant. How much of this went to Close Protection UK? How much, if any, went to Tomorrow’s People or wasn’t it a financial arrangement? When Close Protection UK were awarded the stewarding contract, was this on the basis that they’d use unpaid labour (and if so, were the organisers happy with this?) Or were the organisers led to believe that the stewards would be paid, and the contract price fixed accordingly?

Interestingly Close Protection UK says on its website, specifically under ‘Event Staff’: “Here at CPUK we pride ourselves on our reputation within the industry and therefore only provide the best and most competent event staff. All of our staff are trained to NVQ Level 2 in spectator safety (supervisors trained to Level 3) and all are SIA licensed in door supervision.”

The steward I spoke to hasn’t yet got her NVQ Level 2 (and doesn’t know if she will now, having walked out on the jubilee ‘training’). Some on the coach to London had got their SIA licence, but others hadn’t. So did Close Protection lead the pageant organisers to believe they were hiring – and paying for - ‘the best and most competent’?

Questions are also being asked about the security implications of hiring unqualified inexperienced staff for such a high profile occasion, by Lord Prescott, who has written to the Home Secretary, and my Labour colleague Bill Esterson who has tabled some written parliamentary questions. John Prescott has asked Theresa May to investigate whether Close Protection UK has broken the Security Industry Authority’s approved contractor status terms, including its ‘fit and proper person’ criteria, and whether it should still be allowed to provide stewarding services at the Olympics.

There are also concerns about the financial standing of Close Protection UK, whose net worth is currently shown by Companies House at £-185,861. The director Mary Prince has dissolved another six companies in the last six years.

Over the coming days more will be revealed, no doubt. I hope this triggers a wider debate about the use of workfare and Work Programme participants on "work experience" as a substitute for paid labour, and the exploitation of the scheme by companies who could and should pay a decent wage instead. Not to mention the exploitation of the "volunteers" who live in fear of being sanctioned or refused paid work if they turn down such opportunities. We also need to ‘follow the money’. Who was paid what, and what for, and why weren’t more questions asked about who and what and why? Watch this space, as they say.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and shadow foreign minister.

Rowboats sail towards Tower Bridge during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser