The current debate over work experience programs in the press, with the controversy raised by the withdrawal of various companies from the scheme, has produced an absurd narrative that the Conservatives are seeking to punish the unemployed by bullying them into ‘slave labour’ for which they will receive no remuneration. Yet this completely misses the point of the Government’s back to work programme and the central place workfare for long term unemployed and voluntary work experience has within it. It massively misunderstands the very nature of long-term unemployment, and the reasons behind the disgraceful fact that there are one million people in this country who have been claiming benefits for ten years or more, and also that there are 300,000 children growing up in households in which nobody has ever worked.
Short-term unemployment is clearly a problem the Government needs to be addressing, particularly among young people coming out of university, but the number of short term unemployed is largely dependent on economic growth. Once there are more jobs created in the private sector as Britain recovers from the recession and the debilitating effect of astronomical public spending under Labour, this figure will drop significantly.
Long-term unemployment is an entirely different issue, and the individuals who fall within this group won’t simply bounce back into the world of work once positions open up. That’s because they’ve been economically and socially isolated for a long period of time, having faced repeated rejections from employers, leading to understandable demotivation and depression. Their lack of experience and references makes them a poor prospect for employers, and their lack of motivation means they eventually stop sending out CVs.
I have first hand experience of the long term unemployed in my constituency through my Jobs Club and Jobs Fair initiatives, and I can assure you they would not have treated the government’s work experience programme as ‘slave labour’. Through my weekly Jobs Clubs I saw that although the sessions served first and foremost to provide advice on the job seeking process, they were also in many ways a support group. It showed those whose recent years had been characterised by rejection and failure that they were not alone and that they should keep struggling on in the face of adversity. Much of the sessions were spent exchanging heartbreaking stories about how their unemployment had impacted on their families, their mental health and their perceptions of the society in which they could not full participate. Most of the attendees were incredibly excited to grasp opportunities for voluntary work or pro-bono experience with employers, and the Government scheme currently under attack would provide this on a much larger scale.
At the Jobs Fair I held two weeks ago over 1500 people showed up. Some found jobs, many didn't, but I was struck by the owner of a small business who told me that she had been "emotionally drained" by meeting and talking to so many unemployed people in such a short space of time. Some had offered to work for nothing to "get their foot in the door" either to convince that employer of their worth or at least gain some valuable experience. If the arguments of the Socialist Workers Party prevail, as they may if companies capitulate to them, then what chance do youngsters have of breaking the cycle I hear so often, "no experience no job, no job no experience"? Frankly it pains me to say it but these companies are in danger of failing a generation.
The workfare aspect of our welfare reforms is a classic example of compassionate conservatism, which seeks to use the arm of the state to help people help themselves. Its temporary hijacking by a small band of determined and politically-motivated activists is only being sustained by apparent lack of commitment to the program from some major corporations. Despite the initial enthusiasm of Tesco's, Burger King and Waterstones amongst others, in the face of a small amount of political pressure, they have demonstrated a surprising lack of confidence that's deeply regrettable and out of touch with the public, as evidenced by a recent poll (pdf). I am not surprised by the findings as a number of my Enfield constituents have told me they saw this program as an opportunity for youngsters, some even suggested they are considering shopping elsewhere.
The Labour legacy of simply handing money to passive citizens should be learnt from and rejected. We are the party of the individual, the party that stands on the side of the one million who have been unemployed for ten years and tells each and every one of them that they can do better, and assists them in this pursuit, instead of simply handing them a cheque and giving up. I hope business will join government and the job seeker in genuine coalition to change people's lives for the better.