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Workfare controversy: Charities think again on government scheme

At least two major disability charities are investigating their involvement in a controversial government programme that has been described by critics as “slave labour”.

The government’s scheme offers work experience to young people for between two and eight weeks, but angry campaigners say it is “workfare”, forcing unemployed people to work for their benefits.

In the wake of the row, several disability charities have examined their own possible involvement in the scheme, particularly over the use of young people as “volunteers” in their charity shops.

Scope announced it was suspending its involvement, and was launching an “inquiry” to find out how many young people had “volunteered” through the scheme in its 237 shops.

The mental health charity Mind said it was going through its files with a “fine-toothed comb” to “get to the bottom of exactly what the situation is here” and whether there had been any examples of “coercive volunteering” in its 122 charity shops.

A Mind spokeswoman said: “We do get some volunteers referred by job centres but we do not know at this stage whether or not this small number of people were there for mandatory work experience rather than being there on a voluntary basis.

“We believe volunteering should be exactly that. We do not believe in coercive volunteering.  It was certainly not national policy for us to take advantage of this situation. If it has been happening it will have been happening on a very small scale.”

Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, added: “We share the concerns raised by some of our supporters about workfare and the principle of coercive volunteering and will be reviewing our internal procedures to make sure that mandatory placements are not used.”

Another disability charity, Sense, said it had turned down approaches to take part in government work experience schemes, while Mencap said that it “is not – and has never been” involved with the scheme.

Leonard Cheshire Disability has been unable to confirm whether or not it has taken part in the work experience scheme.

Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, one of the groups that set up the national Boycott Workfare campaign, said: “We hope that [the charities] will backtrack completely and refuse to have anything to do with this scheme, particularly while there are still sanctions available as part of the work placement.”

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said she did not believe the coalition’s work experience scheme was an example of “workfare”.

But she added: “I have no problem with work experience at all. There is a problem when it stops becoming voluntary. I think a lot of pressure is on [young people] from Jobcentre Plus to do it.”

She said that work experience of a couple of weeks or a month was reasonable, but if it lasted up to two months the employer should probably be offering a paid job.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) insisted that the programme was not an example of “workfare”, because the work experience was not compulsory.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The whole purpose of work experience is to give young people with sometimes very little experience in the world of work to have an opportunity to learn about an organisation… and hopefully impress [the employer] and get a reference. They will learn valuable skills.  You don’t have to do it so it is not working for your benefits.”

She said the sanctions that could be applied were already part of any jobseeker’s agreement. “If someone works for three weeks and then says they are not going to bother coming in, there might be a potential sanction.

“But if after three weeks you became ill or had a fundamental problem, that would be discussed and could be [a] perfectly reasonable [excuse].” She added: “I think we would be more than happy to talk to these charities if they had any concerns.”

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