Simon Hughes MP has told Parliament of his concerns about the way the Government's controversial 'workfare' scheme is run in his Bermondsey & Old Southwark constituency.
"I am concerned that we are still running a system ... that does not work or achieve what the Government wish it to achieve," Simon Hughes told the Commons on Tuesday in a debate on the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill.
The MP cited a series of cases from his constituency casework where unemployed local residents had run into problems with mandatory work placements intended to help them back to work.
"The first concerns a constituent called Mr RE ... who wrote to me in autumn last year," said Simon Hughes.
"I then wrote to the Jobcentre Plus manager for my constituency, with whom I have a good professional working relationship. Mr RE told me that he wished to dispute a sanction on his JSA claim. He said he had received a letter from Seetec, the providers of mandatory work activity in my constituency, asking him to attend a mandatory work placement in June 2012 at the British Heart Foundation charity shop on the Old Kent Road.
"On 21 June, the day before Mr RE was due to start, he received a letter from a voluntary organisation for vulnerable adults inviting him for an interview the following Monday – 25 June. He told me that he intended to train as a social worker and that a work placement such as the one offered by Sova, the voluntary body, is a requirement to apply for an MA course in social work. He therefore needed to make that interview a priority. He had only a day's notice, which he needed to spend in preparation and buying appropriate clothing. He telephoned Seetec as soon as possible to advise that he would not be able to start his work placement on 22 June, but said he would be available from 26 June onwards.
"Mr RE told me that Seetec was unwilling to discuss the matter and that nothing was resolved. He found the telephone staff rude, abrupt and unwilling to hold a sensible discussion. He went for his interview with the voluntary organisation for vulnerable adults and – as he said he would – he attended the mandatory work activity the following day. Three days later he received a letter advising him that as he had not started his placement on the date originally requested – 22 June – he was no longer required to attend. He then received a letter informing him that his jobseeker's allowance claim, and that of his partner, would be suspended from 1 August until 30 October last year. I protested that that was a completely inappropriate penalty because it seemed to me that he had good reasons for not attending his placement on 22 June that were directly related to finding work. Furthermore, he had telephoned the provider to explain the reasons, and he attended the work placement as soon as he was able. I stated my view that the system was clearly failing. As it happened, in the end, a review found in his favour. Jobcentre Plus said originally that he did not tell it of the work placement, but it gave in when he queried that. Jobcentre Plus has cancelled the sanction.
"That was a satisfactory outcome, but it is not the only complaint that has come my way. The second case is of D.P., who contacted me on 25 January. He told me that three sanctions had been applied to his JSA claim for failure to attend appointments at the jobcentre. For the first two sanctions, he had failed to attend because he had not received the letter in the post. His representative had written to the jobcentre but it did not agree to lift the sanction. He does not understand the reason for the third sanction, which applies from 10 November 2012 to 10 May 2013, and feels he has done all he can to comply with jobcentre requirements but is still being punished. He has received such severe sanctions that, effectively, he is no longer receiving JSA. I have not yet received an answer to my letter.
"I wrote about the third case on 4 March. C. McC. says she is currently claiming JSA and has been required to attend a work placement at Divine Rescue in Walworth. However, she tells me there is no work for her to do there; that she spends the day from 10 am to 5 pm unoccupied; that no training is provided; and that there are no computer facilities to allow her to work independently.
"The fourth case is of a friend of a constituent. A.S. has an accounting qualification and has worked in finance. He has just finished three months' work experience as an intern in the financial department of a local company, which was appropriate to his career plan. He is a graduate and has a relevant background. He got the placement not through the jobcentre, but separately. He was asked to attend a CV workshop while doing his internship. With the help of my office, we managed to postpone the workshop so he could complete his internship. He was told he was to do mandatory work activities – he was told he had to go and work in a Red Cross shop elsewhere in south London – with no discussion of his qualifications or experience.
"My fourth constituent was sent to a charity shop. He was required to carry out mundane manual lifting work. He said that he had a problem with a back injury, which meant that the work was inappropriate. He has asthma, and therefore work in a dusty environment was not great. There was a failure to provide sufficient work for people to do, including for other people who had been sent there. There was a clear breach of the rules that state that people are meant to work four weeks for five days a week from Monday to Friday. The person at the work placement said, 'You have to work on a Saturday if I say so.' Clearly, that was not in the paperwork.
"The crude point for the minister is that I am not sure that a graduate seeking work in finance should be sent to a charity shop to dust shelves and move boxes. This seems to be regular and routine in the current system. The Government are spending taxpayers' money on providing schemes that should help people back to work. I am not sure, however, that there is any intelligent management of the schemes being offered.
"It is entirely reasonable for somebody who has been out of work, and has extremely low qualifications, to do a relatively low-skilled mandatory work activity. It is not reasonable if they are seeking to do something else. The secretary of state is in his place, and he has always been very courteous and helpful in responding to such issues. I ask him and his team to consider how we can significantly improve the quality of mandatory work activity, monitor it better and ensure that we do not send people to do work that, bluntly, will be of no use to them in enhancing their job prospects. Almost nobody wants to be on benefits all the time. People on benefits struggle to make ends meet and we need to do better."
Mr Hughes continued: "Another constituent – a friend of mine living in Waterloo – had been out of work and claiming jobseeker's allowance. He went to the jobcentre and was invited for an interview with Seetec, which he attended. It was about to send him to Tesco to stack shelves, but he persuaded it that there was an opportunity of mandatory work activity in a photography shop in the west end. He has photographic skills, and he persuaded Seetec, once it had spoken to the employer, that it would be a better place for him to go. I am not disputing the secretary of state's view that some people need to get into the culture of work, but the system fails those who are competent at work, have worked and are willing to do their bit, but get thrown into the wrong place, often to do highly inappropriate activities."
The MP concluded: "My message to the house and the Government is that we need a better system, because a lot of people who are on low incomes or not working are not being well served by the system at the moment."
Responding to the points raised by the Bermondsey MP, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith insisted that welfare to work schemes are kept under constant review.
"We want to improve them and that is what jobcentre staff do," said the minister.
"They are brilliant at that, by the way, and they get better and better. My point on mandatory work activity is that it is not just work experience. It is also about changing culture: finding out whether someone is working and not declaring it; and getting people used to the idea of getting out of bed in the morning and attending somewhere where they do what they have been asked to do, because they have so got out of the habit of doing that, that even attending an interview has become a problem for them.
"This is not just about training; it is about getting people culturally back in line so that they can then be dealt with by advisers."