The furore over the Government's welfare-to-work programme reached a new high at the end of last week when Emma Harrison, chairman of the firm A4e, tasked with getting the long-term unemployed back into work, resigned as the Prime Minister's "family tsar" and subsequently stepped down from her company amid allegations of fraud.
Fresh revelations over the weekend suggest that Harrison received around £1.7 million over two years from leasing out properties, including her family stately home, to her own company.
The Government's various welfare-to-work schemes had already attracted controversy. While the Work Programme is separate from the much smaller work experience programme, the whole issue of getting the unemployed back into work, and the various methods the Government uses to try to do that, has come under scrutiny like never before.
One of the issues muddying the waters for employers and jobseekers alike is that there are a number of different initiatives, including work experience placements, some of which are voluntary and others not. As well as these work experience placements, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) offers sector-based work academies, Mandatory Work Activity, the Work Programme and the Community Activity Programme.
Work experience placements
The work experience placements that have drawn much of the recent criticism are for 16- to 24-year-old jobseeker's allowance (JSA) claimants. Work experience placements are available to 16- to 17-year-olds from day one of unemployment and to 18- to 24-year-olds after13 weeks. Placements last for between two and eight weeks. Once a candidate accepts a place, they must attend on day one but have until the end of the first week of the placement to pull out without penalty.
After completing the first week, the scheme is mandatory until the end of the placement. If jobseekers choose to take part and then fail to turn up without good reason after the first week, their benefits may be docked for a period. This has led critics to question whether or not the placements are really "voluntary" and has attracted such criticism that several major retailers have either suspended their involvement or withdrawn from the schemes. Among some of the big retailers that have reconsidered their position are Tesco, Argos, Superdrug, Greggs and Poundland.
A Superdrug spokesperson told Personnel Today: "We have suspended involvement but we haven't pulled out. We have people who are continuing on the scheme, but we're not taking on any more as we're clarifying some issues that have come up over the last couple of weeks with the Department for Work and Pensions."
Meanwhile a DWP spokesperson told us: "No company has pulled out of the work experience scheme," adding that "there have been a total of 210 sanctions placed on the 34,200 people who have taken part in this scheme".
Does the scheme work?
Alongside the argument that the scheme is somehow exploitative, critics also question whether or not it actually works. According to the DWP, 50% of the 34,200 people who have taken part in the scheme have come off benefits as a result. But Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is not convinced that the Government's figures showing the "success" of work experience are all that meaningful. He writes: "Well over 60% of young jobseekers leave JSA within three months, suggesting that the record of the work experience programme - 50% off benefit in three months - is pretty unimpressive at best, comparing poorly with what happens to young people on JSA in any event. It's certainly not in itself a statistic that the Secretary of State should be trumpeting as a success."
However, Portes does not think that a lack of credible evidence of the success of work experience should stop the schemes being used. Instead, he thinks that the DWP should attempt to produce a proper analysis to allow people to come to a considered judgment on the programme's success. He adds: "We should be looking to improve the programme rather than discard it. Properly structured work experience can make a significant contribution to the employment prospects of young people. And, if the work experience offered does genuinely do that, I think the element of compulsion is justified.
"I would therefore argue that policymakers would be better occupied dealing with these issues and ensuring that work experience is genuinely worthwhile - for the participants, not for the employers - with the real, not theoretical, prospect of a job at the end of it. That would be more constructive than hurling accusations or making assertions on the basis of a very selective reading of the evidence."
Quality of placement
In a recent blog post, Lizzie Crowley and Dr Paul Sissons from The Work Foundation offer their agreement: "A large part of whether work experience is a good thing or not depends on the quality of the placement offered, and whether it is directly linked to a job, for example in the form of a guaranteed interview. In general, for a placement to be beneficial it should be linked to career aspirations or goals and it must involve a variety of tasks and give a real insight into the role and the activities of the company. Those undertaking work experience must be assigned a mentor and be properly supervised throughout their placement, and adequate training must be provided.
"Many responsible employers have been working to provide opportunities for the young, the long-term unemployed, and the disadvantaged for several years, a trend that needs to be encouraged and strengthened. Ministers need to move beyond attacking 'job snobs' and urgently seek to restore employer confidence."
Katerina Rüdiger, skills policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told Personnel Today that she is "surprised and disappointed about the debate over work experience" and says that, notwithstanding the controversy, it was important for employers to get involved. "When there is one example of bad practice, people tend to generalise and forget about the benefits," she says, and she urges employers to "put some thought, develop a work plan for the young person coming in and make sure you have a structure that is beneficial for everyone involved".