Workfare and the Big Society

Nick Clegg in April:

“From today, if you are 18-24 and out of work, you can get down to a Job Centre like this because they will be able to offer you the opportunities to either earn or learn, to either take up work, which we will part subsidise, or the expanded apprentice prospects or the increasing number of work experience placements.”

Over a hundred people spent the night of Saturday 3rd June under London Bridge. Some of them were being paid “apprenticeship wages” of £2.80 an hour, learning valuable rough sleeping skills. Many were working for free, though they’d expected to be paid. Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, says that £1.5 million was allocated for security at the Jubilee, and wants to know, among other good questions:

When Close Protection UK were awarded the stewarding contract, was this on the basis that they’d use unpaid labour (and if so, were the organisers happy with this?) Or were the organisers led to believe that the stewards would be paid, and the contract price fixed accordingly?

American blogger Atrios says (via):

Aside from the obvious “slave labor” element of this, using people like this for security by a private security is a complete scam. It’s just collecting a bunch of money from the government to pretend to provide security. Security people need to be trained, have authority, and actually give a shit to serve any legitimate purpose. The only purpose here is “take tax dollars [sic] and run.”

Possibly we have a different standard of large crowds in Britain than in America, but I have been a volunteer steward, and I’ve been at events with volunteer stewards. I didn’t watch the river pageant: it was a lovely sunny afternoon and, while I’m no monarchist, I don’t get a kick out of watching an elderly lady get rained on.* But it appears the main problem at the event was hypothermia, not security trouble.

You can see how it could have worked if the plan had been from the start to use volunteer stewards for the pageant crowds, with a one and a half million budget. Goodness knows there are probably people who would have felt honoured to volunteer to be a steward at the Jubilee. (I had to pause to remind myself that was true. I’m a devout anti-monarchist from a long line of anti-monarchists.) You need some professional security and trained first-aiders, of course, but the key need for a volunteer steward is to have an eye for trouble, not be afraid to call for backup if needed, and be able to tell members of the public when the flotilla’s due to pass and where the toilets are.

You get that from volunteers if they’ve actually chosen to do the job for free, if they’ve been properly briefed beforehand and some more thought expended on where they’ll sleep for the night than just “drop them off under London Bridge and tell them to kip there”, and some thought about where they’ll change into their stewarding gear

“They had told the ladies we were getting ready in a minibus around the corner and I went to the minibus and they had failed to open it so it was locked. I waited around to find someone to unlock it, and all of the other girls were coming down trying to get ready and no one was bothering to come down to unlock [it], so some of us, including me, were getting undressed in public in the freezing cold and rain.”

and provision made for ensuring that the volunteers had hot food and hot drinks when it turned out to be settling in to rain that weekend

At 0900 Sunday morning they had been given a paper bag with a Sandwich, Muffin and packet of crisps in and told “don’t eat that now its your lunch”. A paper bag, in heavy rain, 3 hours before lunchtime with no way of keeping it dry.

And access to bathrooms, and somewhere to have a shower and change and sit down and have a meal after the pageant was over, and rather more thought about where they’d stay the night than to drop the volunteers off with tents and sleeping bags at a swampy campsite outside London in the rain.

From Eddie Gillard’s blog:

Last night I drove to a campsite just off the M11 and collected 2 of the people let down by CPuk, who, it turns out organised (if thats the right word) this clusterfck of Work experience.

When I arrived close to 2300 hours They were stood in a field soaking wet, shivering with cold and close to exhaustion. One was dressed only in Shirt and slacks as she had not been provided with any waterproof coat, save for a lightweight poncho and a hi vis vest for the jubilee event.

Some muppet had put up their tents with doors open and the insides were soaked along with their possessions, even if they had decided to stay they would have to have sleep in wet tents and sleeping bags.

But also, volunteers who actively had wanted to work for the Jubilee, to help make the crowds in London more safe and secure, who felt themselves part of a team effort to create the spectacle, would have felt differently about any problems about working conditions caused by the rain.

Molly Prince
, managing director of Close Protection UK, said:

“The nature of festival and event work is such that we often travel sleeping on coaches through the night with an early morning pre-event start – it is the nature of the business – It’s hard work and not for the faint-hearted.

“We had staff travel from several locations and some arrived earlier than others at the meeting point, which I believe was London Bridge, which was why some had to hang around. This is an unfortunate set of circumstances but not lack of care on the part of CPUK.”

She added

“On investigation this morning the majority of the team who worked the event were fed and looked after as best possible under the circumstances.”

Since all of the “apprentices” and the older unemployed people from the workfare programme, had been told that they had to work the Jubilee weekend or lose out on the chance they’d be among the chosen to work at the Olympics, I imagine that Molly Prince didn’t anticipate any of them would blab about the real conditions of their working weekend.

Taken from the Prospects website:

The apprenticeship scheme will continue while the young people are on the ‘run up’ to security duties at the London Olympics; their activities will include fire safety duties at up to 26 Olympic site venues. Whilst in London they will be accommodated on-site and work 12 hour shifts for a very competitive wage.

Though it doesn’t say who they’d be competing with.

There has been a petition set up on the Avaaz site calling on Theresa May to investigate. John Prescott also wrote to the Home Secretary:

I am deeply concerned that a private security firm is not only providing policing on the cheap but failing to show a duty of care to its staff and threatening to withdraw an opportunity to work at the Olympics as a means to coerce them to work unpaid.

It also raises very serious questions about the suitability of using private security contractors to do frontline policing instead of trained police officers.

I call on you to immediately investigate this matter and alert the Security Industry Authority to see if CPUK has breached its SIA Approved Contractor Status.

David Cameron has dismissed criticisms. A Downing Street spokeswoman said:

“We understand that the company involved has apologised. But more broadly the work programme is about giving people who have often been out of the workplace for quite some time the chance to develop skills that they need to get a job that is sustainable … The work programme itself offers experience and the chance to develop those skills that people really need to get into sustainable jobs.”

An independent audit of Cameron’s “big society” project two years on, which David Cameron claimed in 2010 would be “one of the great legacies” of his government, found that

  • Cameron’s vision tapped into a “genuine seam of public interest”. The three pillars of the “big society” were enabling people to shape their local area, opening up public services provision to charities, and levels of “social action” such as volunteering.
  • There is a widening “big society gap” in which volunteering and other forms of social capital are strongest in wealthy areas. Cuts have hit charities based in deprived areas the hardest, creating the danger that the project becomes “an initiative for the leafy suburbs”.
  • Despite ministerial promises, charities and social enterprises have been sidelined in the market for government contracts, such as the Work Programme, which the report says has “an implicit bias towards large, private sector businesses”.

Volunteering has been seen for decades as a road back to work for long-term unemployed, as a means of giving back to the community for people who have time on their hands and want something to do with it. The current DWP attitude towards people on benefits volunteering was summed up by a spokeswoman in January:

“To play devil’s advocate here, why should people get benefits for volunteering?”

Why should people lose their benefits because they’re providing labour for free? WHy shouldn’t people on the dole be able to choose for themselves where to give their time and their effort until they get a paid job?

Zoe Williams notes that the justification for using unpaid labour was that CPUK was already running “the jubilee job” at a loss:

Look at Prince’s own justification for not paying the stewards: “The jubilee job will run at an extensive loss, and if you take a look at our published accounts you will see the company ran at a loss last year due to our investment in giving apprentices work placement opportunities which we could not charge our clients for.” How, on a stewardship contract that is certainly paid – the whole job was worth £1.5m, split three ways between the Greater London Authority, the culture department, and the Home Office – can anyone run a loss on employees they’re not paying, even if you include the cost of uniforms and licences? Looking at this as a career in events management, I’d say incompetence is a kind explanation.

Credit where credit’s due, though. Prince mentions there are published accounts. Apparently five of Molly Prince’s previous businesses were compulsorily struck off the Companies House register because they failed to submit their accounts. So she’s doing better this time. There are accounts.

Eddie Gillard entitled his blog, written Sunday night: Queen Put at Risk by Workfare Provider:

At 2300 Saturday 2nd of June 2012, a coachload of Tired, untrained and ill equipped people left Bristol by coach for London and the Queens Jubilee.

At around 0240 they were dropped off by the side of a road with their Baggage and Tents and left stood for more than an hour along with 80 other people.

Having Had no sleep at 0415 these people were told that at 0500 they would be starting a 16 hour shift.

No these are not migrant workers, these are Security Staff for the Queen.

Ages ranging from 16 to 50 with one thing in common. Unpaid and on “work experience”.

This is the company that’ll be providing security for the Olympics, which we’re given to understand matters so much that they’ve stationed ground-to-air missiles in London.

There’s an anecdote Bill Bryson tells, about hearing that the Queen oF Denmark often goes shopping without any security entourage or bodyguard. Bryson, accustomed to the US Secret Service and the British police, asked “Who protects her?” and the shopkeeper said “Why, we all do.”

This is how a Bristol charity that provides unemployed people with training and work experience regards their work:

“We’ve worked very closely with homelessness charities in London and we want to reiterate that we won’t stint on our ethical and professional standards. Everyone involved agrees how counter-productive it would be if job seekers felt under-valued. We were so pleased our Temp Workers returned from the residential weekend feeling part of a team, having learnt about the job, and feeling able to think about a positive future.”

Cameron’s government can (and do) point to a range of initiatives – they’ve recruited cadre community organisers, set up Free Schools, formed a national citizen service, funded small social action funds, and passed the Localism Act to give communities new powers to take over services. [David Robinson of Community Links], said:

“I do not think they amount to a whole, coherent, new vision in the way that big society was first discussed. They are small-scale changes, and pale into insignificance in terms of the extent of the cuts and the impact on organisations like ours.”

David Cameron claimed blandly to have a “positive programme” and that he and his government really believed in the Big Society and in what charities and voluntary organisations did. While he was full of quibbling caveats about the “financial situation” and “difficult decisions”, in his first speech about Big Society two years ago, he claimed he wanted to know “what more can we do to make it possible? What steps do you need us to take? … It’s what can we do to help enable you to do even more of what you do.” He claimed:

It’s something, as you know, I care passionately about; it’s something I would like to be one of the great legacies of this government: building the Big Society. Yes, we have to deal with the deficit; yes, we have to make sure we secure the future in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. But to me personally, what I would most like to be a legacy is actually helping to build the Big Society through the work that all of you and many hundreds of thousands like you around our country do. So that is what today is all about as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not as if the Diamond Jubilee took anyone by surprise. Or as if there was a shortage of money to pay for it. It’s not as if there wouldn’t have been time to find suitable and enthusiastic volunteers, who’d like the idea of being the Queen’s security for a day, who could have been properly supported.

David Cameron’s “passion” for the Big Society does not extend into government funding: he’s passionate about exhorting people to volunteer, but it doesn’t seem to occur to the Cabinet of millionaires that unless volunteers are independently wealthy, the charity for which they work needs to expend money and staff to support the volunteers. And there is clearly a complete wall in Cameron’s mind that people who are unemployed could be part of his “Big Society” – or that the decent and reasonable goal of helping his cronies to make a profit should perhaps be secondary to a principle or two.

Zoe WIlliams notes:

Tomorrow’s People, a charity headed by Baroness Stedman-Scott, a Conservative peer, and it’s anyone’s guess how that doesn’t constitute a conflict of interests, being in receipt of government contracts for helping the unemployed, when your own party is in government.

The audacity of these contractors makes me want to laugh, but what is paralysingly unfunny is how much larger this is than two organisations; how much desperation there is that people would do this job for nothing; how much sheer unfairness there is in society recasting the cost of training as something to be borne by the person starting out; how much inhumanity there is in abasing the unemployed.

So where is the Opposition on workfare?

Éoin Clarke, who bills himself as to the leftward side of the Labour Party, and has claimed to hate workfare schemes, nonetheless put in his open letter to Ed Miliband so many quibbles about the acceptability of workfare under certain working conditions that he ended up endorsing workfare if specific conditions were met (which I think was hardly what he intended to do). Not long ago the manager of a start-up had read so much about workfare that he appears to have assumed it was now legal to just pay your employees whateve you like. Has the Overton Bubble moved? Do people really think that unemployed people shouldn’t get paid work if they can be fobbed off with the same work unpaid?

John Prescott and Kerry McCarthy have both spoken out strongly against this specific instance of workfare. (Liam Byrne, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, rather less strongly and still only against this specific instance.) Outside Parliament, Peter Tatchell talks about economic democracy – because no one should expect to be treated like this. Or like this:

The fear of unemployment is, naturally, what workplace bullies capitalise on. Of course they do. It’s the worst case scenario. Unemployment is the ultimate marginalisation.

So if you’re being bullied and someone says: ‘Just walk out’, then stop listening right there. They’ve obviously never been bullied at their firm and/or had a spell out of work. Your unemployment will likely satisfy your bully. You need to find another job. This isn’t easy in a recession, granted, but you must make it a labour of love to find a job where you’re wholly appreciated.

The big news of yesterday morning in the US was that despite the high hopes of January, Scott Walker is still governor of Wisconsin. Gary Younge outlines several reasons, but one is key:

Tom Barrett and the Democrats ran a confused and unconvincing campaign. Everybody knew what Walker stood for even if they didn’t like it: small government, weak unions and low taxes.

It was never quite clear what Barrett stood for apart from that he was not Walker. His message meandered from corruption among Walker’s former aides, to the call for a more consensual leadership style from Madison. In 2010 that would have been all well and good. But the recall was prompted for a reason – Walker’s attacks on trade unions as a foil for balancing the budget. Yet Barrett did not stand as a defender of labour and did not produce a credible, progressive response to the state’s fiscal problems.

As Adam Ramsay at Bright Green Scotland says, the parallels between the muddled Democrats and Ed Miliband are all too clear:

this could easily be the UK in 2015. People know what Cameron and Osborne are about. They have a clear direction for the country. Many strongly dislike that direction, but despite a couple of recent U-turns, we know what it is. Does anyone really have a clue what Ed Miliband is about? Other than some meaningless soundbites about ‘the squeezed middle’, what is it that gets him up in the morning?

Where is there a Labour politician who’s willing to stand up and say workfare is wicked? That minimum wage isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law? Who will oppose not just specific instances of workfare, but the whole ideology behind it – all of Cameron’s back to the workhouse policies. There is an awful tendancy among the Westminister Bubble to assume that what merely has widespread popular support, and makes economic sense, is still “not credible”, because credibility is what bubblethink says it is.


Following adverse press reports relating to the working conditions and supervision of a number of trainees over part of the bank holiday weekend, PROSPECTS, as the prime contractor for the Work Programme in the South West, will carry out a full investigation to ascertain the facts and make recommendations for the future.

From the perspective of social media crisis management, Puffles’ Bestest Buddy writes: If your firm’s not on Twitter and you end up in a social media firestorm… noting the particular circumstances which made it difficult for the companies and government departments concerned to respond effectively.


*It would be cynical to suppose that the Greek immigrant who’s been claiming benefits here for 65 years faked ill health in order to get out of sitting through all of the Jubilee “entertainment” as he was supposed to. (Did the Civil List get confirmation from Atos? If not, will Philip’s benefits** be cut?)

** Philip gets paid £980.87½*** per day for not reigning.

*** Buckingham Palace keeps a supply of ha’pennies to make sure he gets exact change.****

**** Why yes, I am joking.

***** Giles Fraser, formerly of St Pauls until he decided to serve God rather than Mammon, has some pithy things to say about the Establishment when writing about his new church.)


Filed under Corruption, Olympics, Poverty

2 responses to “Workfare and the Big Society

  1. I’m sure the west country Al Q’ida will have been inspired by this! All they have to do is get unemployed, get press-ganged onto this scheme, and BANG! Olympic GOLD!

  2. Pingback: Jubilee Stewards And Twitter « Soupy One

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