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Workfare casts a shadow over the Jubilee

The use of the unemployed as unpaid stewards is a symptom of a divided nation.

New Statesman
A security guard stands beneath a large screen in St James's Park prior to The Diamond Jubilee Concert. Photograph: Getty Images.

In his speech at last night's Jubilee concert, Prince Charles notably referred to the "difficulties and hardships" faced by many (before an unintentionally amusing reference to people proudly "lining the banks"). On the theme of hardship, then, today's Guardian reports that "A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations." Worse, they were told to sleep under London Bridge the night before the river pageant, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift.

The security firm in question, Close Protection UK, was operating under the government's Work Programme, which attempts to make jobseekers more employable by offering them "work experience" with selected companies. It's important to note that the programme is voluntary and does not affect jobseekers keeping their benefits. But it's not hard to see why the story has provoked such outrage this morning. There is something Dickensian about the unemployed sleeping under London Bridge in order to guard a hereditary monarch. Blogger Eddie Gillard (who first broke the story) reports that "some had been told they would be paid for working and that they should 'Sign Off' benefits before starting, which turned out to be a falsehood, mistake or lie, I cannot say which." Given that the government allocated £1.5m for stewarding, it is unclear why some were left unpaid.

The hope in Downing Street is that the "feel-good-factor" created by the Jubilee will improve the Tories' dismal poll ratings (one poll yesterday put them 16 points behind Labour). It may yet do so. The Guardian's story was not picked up by the BBC or the Times, both in full royalist cry. But the accounts of workfare are a symptom of why Cameron will find it so difficult to rally an increasingly divided nation behind him.

Update: The BBC have belatedly covered the story under the guise of "Prescott urges inquiry into Jubilee work experience claims".