I know it’s wrong to take John Prescott seriously, but his attack on the government’s work experience programme epitomises a sneering attitude that is quite widespread. It was most egregiously displayed by the BBC Today Programme in its flagship 8.10am report about those who volunteered to steward the Jubilee celebrations — except the BBC report never once used the word ‘volunteer’. There’s going to be a lot more of these work experience offers, thank God, and we can expect the government’s critics to ask if the labour market is ‘receding into the 19th Century’ with ‘Dickensian’ tactics (to use the BBC’s disgraceful language). Rather, this is a 21st century solution to 21st century poverty — a type that the BBC does not seem to recognise. I look at this in my Telegraph column today.
When the Today Programme’s John Humphrys returned to Cardiff for his excellent documentary about welfare in Britain, he observed that when he grew up everyone worked and there would be a stigma on people who didn’t. How things change. There are 300,000 children living in households where no one has ever worked, a figure that doubled over the Labour boom years. For young people in such conditions, landing any job is no small deal. Beveridge was right to describe idleness as a ‘giant evil’ and it doesn’t take a sociology PhD to understand why. Unemployment is self-perpetuating: the longer you stay out of work, the harder it is to find work. 21st century poverty is characterised not so much by lack of money, but by lack of work. A social apartheid has grown up between those in work and those outside it. The government’s work placement programme is a belated, but hugely important, attempt to tackle that divide.
All of those who volunteered to be Jubilee stewards through the welfare-to-work provider, Tomorrow’s People, wanted to work in the security industry. There will be those who sneer at the very term, and can’t work out why anyone would aspire to be a security guard. But 220 people signed up to work with Close Protection UK and some wrote back thanking them for the experience. Some were doing an NVQ in stewarding, and needed the experience. The unemployed have to stand out from the competition, especially from immigrant workers famed for their work ethic (and still arriving at a rate of 1,400 a day). How does a Brit prove that they, too, have an incredible work ethic? Volunteering to stand in the drizzle for three days is a pretty good way of doing so. Any potential employer would be impressed.
But what I find most distasteful about this debate is the snobbery. Shelf-stacking is spoken of as a form of servitude — and yet Sir Terry Leahy started off stacking shelves for Tesco and worked his way up to run the company. The BBC report didn’t refer once to ‘work experience’ — a term it presumably reserves for posh jobs. The pejorative term it used throughout that report was ‘unpaid labour’. My trade, journalism, is one where the ability to do work experience — or ‘unpaid labour’ — is the way in. You hang around an office, making the tea and if you’re lucky doing a bit of real work. If they like you, they may ask you to hang around a bit more. But for those lacking connections, these work placements are gold dust. If you stand a 10 per cent chance of the placement leading to paid work, it’s better than the 0.1 per cent chance of sending a letter leading to work.
Nick Clegg had a point when he complained that the work experience posts were going to the well-connected: the assumption of his argument was that these opportunities are, potentially, a passport to paid work. He’s right, and John Prescott should accept it. Cleaners, security guards, hotel waiting staff, checkout people — they all tend to prefer people with previous experience. This is why tens of thousands have volunteered for work experience placements through the DWP’s 18 welfare-to-work providers. And this is why the scheme is well on its way to providing 100,000 jobs. Grayling’s plan is creating a new bottom rung on the ladder that people can climb. He should make no apology for it.Tags: Chris Grayling, John Prescott, Unemployment, Welfare reform