On Saturday 3rd March the Boycott Workfare campaign plans a national, UK-wide, day of action against workfare – and I had been wondering why no locale for a demo had yet been announced for Edinburgh or Glasgow, both of which have healthy UKUncut groups. Though companies have been backing off from the scheme since it became clear that even Daily Mail readers were switching sides (in January, Jan Moir penned one of her vitriol-loaded columns dripping bile and acid on Cait Reilly for thinking that if Poundland wanted her to stack shelves they could pay her: only a month later the Mail runs an article asking why big companies like Poundland and Tesco are getting workers for free).
According to Stephen Naysmith at the Herald, the answer is horrifyingly simple – the DWP have decided not to tell us which companies and charities are making use of unpaid workers:
The Herald has been requesting, through Freedom of Information, the names of companies involved in the provision of unpaid placements for job seekers since early last month.
The request was turned down last week by the DWP, which said providing it would compromise the “commercial interests of both the department and those delivering services”.
The commercial interests of DWP? The Department of Work and Pensions isn’t supposed to have “commercial interests”. What are they telling us here? And why should the commercial interests of companies using workfare to avoid hiring be put ahead of the public right to know?
Legally, workfare is supposed not to replace paid work but to provide a kind of work trial – a few weeks unpaid work that is rewarded with a job interview (though there’s no requirement on the company to actually have a job to offer). Workfare is unquestionably a most unpopular policy, and companies and charities which have been revealed to be using it have recently had to back off and drop the scheme, declaring hastily that they had no idea that the JSA claimants showing up to work for 25 hours a week for their bus fares were actually being made to do it under threat of sanctions.
So it’s clear that telling the public what businesses are using workfare in Scotland is against the commercial interests of those businesses. But it’s far from clear that this is a valid “no public interest” argument.
The refusal said the DWP considered there was no public interest argument for releasing the information requested for what is known as the Scotland Contract Package Area (CPA). But these concerns only appear to apply in Scotland. The DWP has published the names of the companies which provide mandatory work placements in south-east England and north- west England CPAs.
In December, the DWP revealed that in areas of south-east England such as Kent, providers of unpaid work placements include Asda, Oxfam and Pizza Hut.
Workfare placements are supposed to be work for the public benefit. And as the DWP defines “public benefit”, this can mean increasing Asda’s and Pizza Hut’s profitability by providing free labour.
An unnamed spokeswoman for the DWP claimed this wasn’t inconsistent:
“Scotland is not being treated as a separate case. In line with the Freedom of Information process, we have been asked to review this decision and that is what we are currently doing.
My constituent Mr McGowan, of Blantyre in Lanarkshire, is in the latter stages of his life. He has a terminal illness, severe dementia, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, he is bedridden and he cannot even swallow. He recently received a standard letter from the Department for Work and Pensions asking him to get in touch so that he could be given guidance about how to get back to work. Given that the DWP knows all the people who are terminally ill, because they have filled in the DS1500 form, is it not irresponsible and distasteful, as well as deeply upsetting for those concerned and the relatives looking after them, for the DWP to send such standard letters, when the data already exist, and people know they should not be in that position?
Today he lodged questions in the House of Commons asking why the DWP is withholding the names of the firms it is working with to deliver the workfare programme in Scotland.
“It is astounding that the DWP are refusing to release this information in relation to contracts in Scotland when the same information is available for England. As these are contracts funded through public money, people have a right to know which companies are involved.”
This is why we need the Freedom of Information Act, and the FOI Commissioners, to remain powerful and independent. We have a right to know. Use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask about workfare in Scotland. Write to your MP to defend Freedom of Information – the Justice Committee sits tomorrow.