Yesterday’s court of appeal ruling on back-to-work schemes has reignited the cry of the welfare lobby that workfare or work for your benefit-type schemes are unfair. The ruling has been seen as a success for continued efforts to stop the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) using the schemes to help and encourage benefit claimants back into work. Thankfully, it seems that celebrations might be short-lived.
In fact, the court did not rule against the principle of requiring benefit claimants to engage in unpaid work activity. The ruling was based on a more technical issue that does not undermine the principles upon which the programmes are based. This should mean that, even if a right of appeal is denied to the DWP, new legislation could be in place relatively quickly to ensure that the schemes can be used as before. In fact, such legislation was laid by the DWP last night.
Given recent evidence that shows the schemes can be successful, this is encouraging. However, the worry is that firms who have previously engaged in the schemes might be discouraged from participating due to the potential for bad press from inaccurate and unfair portrayals. This has already led several employers to withdraw, especially given the costs of monitoring and training individuals who many only be there for a short period.
This would be an unfortunate step backwards. These schemes offer huge benefits to benefit claimants since they allow firms to trial workers they may otherwise not have considered. Key examples are young people with no work experience who have found it hard to find employment after school or university and those who have been unemployed for extremely long periods of time (in some cases three years or more). Individuals such as these really need a foothold in the labour market that workfare-type schemes can provide. Claims that the jobs are not suitable or do not meet their aspirations are unfair: we should not let those with no work experience and claiming benefits to pick and choose the work they enter into; and for the extremely long-term unemployed, having any kind of experience on a CV is vital to show potential employers that they are worth taking a risk on.
There are also other benefits: in many cases the schemes offer the ability to gain experience and access more permanent paid employment with the guarantee of an interview at the end of the placement. None of these benefits should be ignored out of hand, and few are considered by those who protest against the use of back-to-work schemes.
We should also take a broader perspective. These schemes are viewed as legitimate by a huge majority of the public. For example, a recent poll showed that 80% of respondents agreed that, “people who have been out of work for 12 months or more, who are physically and mentally capable of undertaking a job, should be required to do community work in return for their state benefits”. We should also remember that people on these schemes are still receiving the benefits and tax credits they are entitled to. This is not work for nothing.
Overall it is clear that there are legitimate claims that need to be addressed with these schemes. In particular, responsibilities and potential sanctions should have been communicated better to the individuals in question, but the ruling today was not a judgment against back-to-work schemes themselves. They will continue to form a key part of the DWP’s attempts to move people back into work, and should be encouraged to do so.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian’s website