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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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.