The revolt against workfare spreads

Grayling struggles to defend scheme as Poundland pulls out and Greggs raises concerns.

"A big internet campaign that's being run by an organisation that's a front for the Socialist Workers Party." That was how Tory welfare minister Chris Grayling described the revolt against the government's workfare scheme during his appearance on the Today programme.

Reports this morning suggest that Poundland has pulled out of the programme, while Greggs has raised concerns over its involvement. Grayling was unable to confirm which, if any, scheme Poundland had left (indeed, he insisted that "not one single company" had withdrawn) but he conceded that employers were "very jumpy". What began as a revolt against a Tesco job advert which notoriously offered a salary of "JSA + Expenses" has thrown the entire future of the programme into doubt.

The scheme, in brief, attempts to make jobseekers more employable by offering them "work experience" with companies like the ones above. The programme is voluntary, not least because participants will only be paid expenses for the 25-30 hours they work a week. However, should they pull out of the placement, for whatever reason, after more than a week has elapsed, they could lose their benefits. It's this draconian sanction that has led a significant number of companies (Argos, Waterstones, Maplin, TK Maxx) to reconsider their involvement. Tesco has already suggested to ministers that "the risk of losing benefits that currently exists should be removed", a demand now echoed by Greggs.

The bakery's chief executive Ken McMeikan told Newsnight:

If after a week or more you decide as an individual that it's not working for you and you leave the scheme, we don't believe at Greggs that the benefits should be taken away.

Our view is if they are volunteering to come on this scheme, and for whatever reason they come off, then they go back onto benefits.

If the government wants the scheme to survive, it's increasingly hard to see how it can avoid backing down. Large companies, for understandable reasons, are uncomfortable with the impression of slave labour created by the threat of benefits removal. And, contrary to Grayling, it isn't only Trotskyists who are troubled by the scheme. The element of compulsion involved (keep working or you'll lose your benefits) offends against basic fairness. Unless ministers concede this point, they could soon have a workfare programme without any work.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.