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.

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Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.