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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder