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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Stop pretending an independent Scotland couldn't join the EU

The SNP has a different set of questions to answer. 

"But Spain", is the common response to a discussion of whether, by voting for independence, Scotland could effectively reverse Brexit. "Disaster for Sturgeon as Spain BACKS May over plans to block Scottish independence vote," declared the Brexiteer's favourite, The Express, this month. Spain, according to this narrative, would unilaterally puncture the SNP's bubble by vetoing readmission to the EU. An independent Scotland would be cast adrift into the North Sea.

I just don't buy it. I have put this question to everyone from former EU member state ambassadors to the former World Trade Organisation head and the answer has been the same: "It can be managed." 

There is also a crucial difference between Spain vetoing Scotland entering the EU, and considering its application on its own merit. Spain is indeed nervous about encouraging Catalonian separatists. But read between the lines. Spain's position on Scotland has so far been to say it would have to exit the EU, become independent and reapply. 

Last time I checked, that's not a veto. And from an EU perspective, this isn't as arduous as it might sound. Scotland's regulations would be in line with EU regulations. It would not upset the balance of power, nor fuel an identity crisis, in the way that Turkey's application did. Spain could justify acquiesence on the basis that the circumstances were extraordinary. And for a club struggling to hold together, an eager defector from the renegade Brexit Britain would be a PR coup. 

Where it is far more arduous is for the Scottish National Party, and the independence movement. As I've written before, roughly a third of SNP voters also voted Leave. Apart from the second-glass-of-wine question of whether quitting one union to join another really counts as independence, Scotland's fishing industry has concrete concerns about the EU. SNP MP Joanna Cherry has observed that it is "no secret" that many Leave voters worked in fishing. 

Then there are the questions all but the most diehard Remain voters will want answered. Would Scotland take the Euro? Would a land border with England be an acceptable sacrifice? Would an independent Scotland in the EU push for reforms at Brussels, or slavishly follow bureacracy's lead? The terms of EU membership for an independent Scotland may look quite different from those enjoyed by the UK.

Rather than continuing to shoot down the idea that an independent Scotland could join the EU - a club happy to accept other small countries like Ireland, Austria and Malta - opponents of the Scottish independence movement should be instead asking these questions. They are far harder to answer. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.