19 Dec 2014
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Scope is the latest charity to review its provision of unpaid work experience for benefit claimants, following the government’s decision to extend the policy to sick and disabled people from this week.
Scope has been providing work placements to jobseekers within its stores since last year, though not as part of any formal contract with the government. In February, when the initial furore around the scheme erupted in the media, Scope carried out a full review of its involvement. When feedback from the people taking part was found to be “overwhelmingly positive”, it decided to continue with the programme but to introduce stricter checks to ensure that people were happy to be participating.
But now that the net has been expanded to include Employment and Support Allowance claimants - those who have been assessed as being able to go back to work at some point - a further review is being urgently conducted. “This decision by the government is, frankly, a game-changer,” said a Scope spokesman. “We will be reflecting on every aspect of our involvement now.”
BHF and CRUK took the decision to pull out of the scheme last month and Age UK has joined their ranks this week. Although Age UK had never provided placements at a national level, some of its 450 charity shops had struck up partnerships with local companies that run the schemes for the government. But now it has advised all its stores to pull out of the government employment programmes because it is concerned that people are being forced to work in its stores in order to keep receiving their benefits.
Caroline Bendelow, director of people and performance at Age UK, told civilsociety.co.uk: “There has never been any national involvement with volunteer or mandatory government work experience schemes and we have been working with our shops to end any local links that previously existed to such programmes in isolated areas.”
Bendelow added that the charity was committed to giving all its volunteers – of which there are over 7,000 - an “enjoyable and fruitful experience”.
“We are an inclusive organisation and we value our volunteers extremely highly. We strive to support individuals with a diverse range of needs who choose to volunteer with us.”
However, there are also 169 local Age UKs across the country that are independent charities that will make their own decisions based on the needs of their local communities.
Last month the British Heart Foundation decided to withdraw its involvement and instead explore schemes that provide longer-term voluntary placements. Campaign group Boycott Workfare praised the BHF’s decision at the time, saying: “It is good to see a charity that was using workfare on a massive scale acknowledge that forced unpaid work isn’t palatable for their supporters or customers.”
It went on: “For workfare to succeed, the government needs charities to co-operate. We hope BHF’s retreat marks a new line in the sand: charities should not be making people poorer by putting them at risk of benefit stoppages.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has insisted that work experience for people on Employment and Support Allowance is “completely voluntary”, except where claimants “refuse to take reasonable steps to address a barrier to work”. In that case, it said, “a short, appropriate, mandatory work placement – which must take the claimant’s health into account – would be helpful”.
It added that it was “grateful for the continued support of the wider charitable sector in helping unemployed people re-engage with the system and move closer to work”.
DWP has resisted an order from the Information Commissioner’s Office to publish the names of all charities and businesses that provide mandatory work-experience placements. The ICO ruled that the names should be released back in August but DWP has appealed, arguing in legal documents leaked to The Guardian that publishing the list would render the programme unworkable because of likely protests against the organisations involved.
Barnardo's and Oxfam both confirmed to civilsociety.co.uk this week that they do not take part in mandatory work placement schemes.
Oxfam's head of volunteering, Georgia Boon, said: “Oxfam has never been supportive of or willing to participate in schemes which could force people into poverty by sanctioning their benefits.
"Not only is it against our aims to end poverty, here in the UK as well as overseas, but compelling people’s involvement in such schemes also goes against the true nature of being a volunteer.”
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