Workfare goes underground as Holland and Barrett pull out

DWP pitches for small businesses instead

Holland and Barrett, one of the largest companies using unpaid workers from the government's various employment schemes, has pulled out, citing the bad press and in-store protests its participation prompted. It will now pay its workers on through government's apprenticeship program, guaranteeing them a wage of at least £2.60 per hour.

The company made the announcement on its Facebook page, writing that:

At Holland & Barrett, we take our responsibilities as a retailer and employer very seriously, and any possible compromise to the safety of our staff and customers from opponents of our work experience scheme is treated with great importance.

This factor, together with the planned introduction of a new full time, salaried apprentice scheme, means that the 60 people currently undertaking the work experience scheme will be the last to complete the eight week placement. After this time Holland & Barrett will not participate further in that scheme.

Speaking to Shiv Malik at the Guardian, Solidarity Federation (Sol Fed)'s Jim Clark, one of the organisers of the series of protests, responded:

Holland & Barrett's claim that pickets of stores could offer a possible compromise to the safety of staff and customers is completely baseless. On our pickets, the first people we spoke to were the staff, many of whom told us they agreed with the aim of our campaign and that overtime was no longer available in some stores as it was being done by unpaid workfare labour instead.

The workfare program has been a mess for the government since attention was first drawn to the compulsory nature of some of the unpaid work this spring. The Department for Work and Pensions was revealed to be telling claimants on one of the "voluntary" schemes that attendance was mandatory, and a number of high-profile companies stopped taking on workers under the schemes after a fraught meeting with Chris Graying, the minister in charge. And last month, the government's own research showed that mandatory work activity is "largely ineffective", according to NIESR's Jonathan Portes, who wrote:

Briefly, what the analysis shows is that the programme as currently structured is not working. It has no impact on employment; it leads to a small and transitory reduction in benefit receipt; and worst of all, it may even lead to those on the programme moving from Jobseekers' Allowance to Employment and Support Allowance.

Despite that, the government has decided to expand the MWA scheme; but it appears that the government is attempting to avoid the PR hits that has often come with businesses taking on workers from the scheme. Various small businesses have reported being offered participants directly, in a move which is seemingly an attempt to drive participation underground. If campaign groups like Boycott Workfare have to protest 60 businesses each with one worker, rather than one with 60, they will have their work cut out to effect a change.

That said, it is probably the case that if government is having to enact policy designed around making it difficult to protest, that is at least a symbolic win for the protestors. Gettin an actual win, however, will get a bit harder.

Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pensions. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

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