— BoycottWorkfare (@boycottworkfare) November 25, 2015
Hidden in the Autumn Statement was the news that the contracts for two flagship workfare schemes – Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements – will not be renewed. Their demise is significant: it means that together we have frustrated and scaled back the government’s mass workfare project.
Total spending on employment will be reduced, including not renewing Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements, but introducing a Work and Health Programme for the longer term unemployed and those with health conditions.
This is down to all of us. The DWP is ditching MWA and CWP after deciding that they’re too expensive – and it’s our solidarity and resistance that contributed to those costs and ultimately made those schemes unworkable. If you named and shamed your workfare placement organisation, if you tweeted at workfare-using companies, blockaded their doors or encouraged a local community organisation to Keep Volunteering Voluntary, then you helped make this happen.
We should be proud. We know that thanks to our efforts, workfare providers have found it so hard to find organisations willing to tar their reputation with workfare that only half of the people referred for Community Work Placements were found places. We know that the government has gone to every length to avoid publishing which organisations use workfare for fear that our campaigning could lead to these schemes’ collapse.
So before we look at what’s coming next, it’s important to see what we have achieved: forced unpaid work in the UK has been beaten back from the vast scale the government had planned. This matters. Benefits have not become pegged to unpaid work in the new poverty “settlement” Osborne hopes to establish.
So what now?
Workfare is still taking place. Referrals to punitive six-month Community Work Placements are due to run until the end of March 2016, so the placements will end in October – see section 1.25 of the CWP contract details. The end date is the same for referrals to Mandatory Work Activity – so contracts for that 4-week scheme end in April 2016.
And these aren’t the only schemes: people are still being forced to work without pay under threat of sanction on the Work Programme, through Sector Based Work Academies and Steps 2 Success (in Northern Ireland). We’re still waiting to find out what will replace MWA and CWP. Meanwhile schemes such as Work Experience and Traineeships are helping to make unpaid work the norm for jobseekers. We don’t know the future of the DWP’s plans for mandatory workfare or skills training for 18-21 year olds, once MWA and CWP disappear.
While these schemes still exist, we can disrupt them and help bring placements to an end. We need to name the organisations using workfare and then take action to shame them into pulling out. Without the oxygen of placements these schemes are unworkable.
But the government’s sights are set wider than workfare, so ours must be too.
If you’re referred to a placement
We’ve had a lot of queries from people facing referrals for Community Work Placements and Mandatory Work Activity, who are asking whether they have to attend now that the DWP won’t be renewing contracts for these schemes. Keep in mind that under the existing contract referrals will continue until 31 March 2016 (more details here), with placements ending in October 2016. So, the answer is ‘yes’. You do have to attend.
The 31 March deadline for new CWP and MWA referrals means that challenging a placement is especially important. If you keep delaying your placement you just might get out of it entirely. Information on challenging placements on MWA and other schemes can be found here. And here’s a leaflet with further advice on how to challenge CWP placements. You can also challenge a placement by questioning the organisation’s insurance cover, as Employers Liability Insurance only covers paid employees and genuine volunteers. Workfare conscripts do not fit into either category. You can find template letters for CWP and MWA here.
By refusing to allow the placement provider permission to share your details with third parties, you can escape being sent on a CWP workfare placement. A letter than has been used by successfully by Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty is here. Another tactic is to raise a conscientious objection. This would be applicable if you are assigned to a religious organisation or one that uses animal testing and other practices open to question. Here are some links on how to do that. You can also notify the organisation using workfare that you’ll be protesting there (‘protest notification letters’ can be downloaded here.
Conditionality and sanctions
The government made this ominous pledge in section six of the Autumn Statement:
Continued roll out of Universal Credit, extending job search conditionality and Jobcentre Plus support to a further 1.3 million claimants by 2020-21. This will include people who previously claimed housing benefit or child tax credit only, and out of work partners of benefit recipients.
Extending conditionality means more sanctions. More sanctions mean more hunger and poverty. “Jobcentre Plus support” is DWP-speak for creating endless, demeaning hoops (like workfare) to jump through or face losing benefits. Sanctions to housing benefit would directly threaten people with homelessness if they don’t comply.
Work and Health
The government has promised a new “Work and Health Programme” to replace the Work Programme and Work Choice schemes. At the moment, the Work Programme includes workfare in the form of ‘mandatory community benefit work placements’: contracts for the Work Programme will expire in April 2017).
Anyone who has been through welfare to work schemes in the past will be aware of the nasty psycho-babble the industry already puts us through under threat of sanctions. This new programme seems the logical next step as the government seeks to brand unemployment a symptom of an illness or deficiency that needs treatment, rather than as a symptom of the economy. The government keeps on hinting at the possibility of forcing disabled people to into treatment under threat of sanctions – though they mean something very broad by ‘treatment’. At the same time, employment services and health services are moving closer and closer together: in Living Well Hubs and in GPs’ surgeries.
The DWP says it can’t confirm yet whether this new programme will involve forced, unpaid work or not. But as @refuted has pointed out, the 35 hours per week of ‘work preparation activity’ that claimants have to do under Universal Credit can include workfare. It means, potentially, that workfare can continue without the need for a named scheme.
We must ensure that no coercive psychological interventions can be “prescribed” as a condition of subsistence benefits. The Autumn Statement promises ‘expanding the Fit for Work service’. We must stop this becoming cover for disabled and sick people receiving even more stressful interventions like the work capability assessment and workfare.
It doesn’t exist yet so there’s still time to make the Work and Health Programme unworkable. Perhaps we can start with taking away the support it would need from the medical and psychological professions or the charity sector. Groups like Mental Health Resistance Network and Psychologists Against Austerity.
[UPDATE 30th November 2015: it’s been pointed out that the case which Public Interest Lawyers pursued against the DWP all the way to the supreme court in 2013 (the Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson case) could mean that workfare schemes still have to be prescribed. That is, the content of each scheme and what you can be forced to on it will still have to be outlined in law. The DWP has shown its willingness to run roughshod over the law when it feels like it, though, so this is still something to watch.]
What might come next in relation to the Work and Health Programme? Whatever form the scheme takes,it’s likely to ‘segment jobseekers by their characteristics, not by the benefits which they receive’. It can’t be coincidental that in a recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Matthew Oakley suggested: ‘a segmentation tool should be introduced to identify the relative difficulty a given individual might have in finding work because of the barriers they face’. DWP pilots involved telephoning claimants and combining that information with data already held by the department. And lengthy interviews with claimants to determine their attitudes to work. The DWP have tried this kind of thing before. It’s always invasive and it can lead to people with the ‘wrong’ attitude to work being penalised.
The end of Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements are not the final score. there are more battles still to win.
But workfare placements are crumbling due to efforts of many of us. And without organisations willing to take on coerced and unpaid workers, workfare is impossible. We have the power to challenge sanctions and make the Work and Health programme unworkable too.