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The Jubilee stewards scandal reveals the flaws of the Work Programme

8 June 2012

10:30 AM

8 June 2012

10:30 AM

It all seemed innocent enough. I even found myself in the rain at Somerset House watching the river pageant (for the kids, you understand). The street party in my road meant I met neighbours I had never spoken to. And the high-kitsch of the Diamond Jubilee concert seemed to give the world a lesson in how not to take yourself too seriously.

But then came Shiv Malik’s scoop on the unpaid Jubilee pageant stewards shivering under the bridges with sodden food and no shelter from the elements. It is hard to imagine a more powerful image of our divided nation. Sometimes a news story emerges which has a symbolic power beyond the mere facts it reports. This is one of them.

The expense of the Jubilee celebrations was always difficult to justify in these straitened times. But crowds of the size witnessed on the Mall on Sunday are difficult to argue with. At least a section of the British public appeared to embrace the absurdity that is the hereditary principle.

The story of the Work Programme stewards came like a slap round the face with a wet packed lunch.

Every week brings a new suggestion that a policy could turn out to be the coalition’s Poll Tax. But of all the recent government reforms, the Work Programme is the most vulnerable because it means so much. Ministers know that if the public loses faith in its ability to put Britain back to work they will not be re-elected.

Those of us running charities who have tried to operate as sub-contractors within the Byzantine Work Programme system have been warning anyone who will listen that the system is at risk of failing the people who need it the most. It was not designed with small charities in mind and it is no surprise that it does not allow them to deliver. But critics of the system should draw no comfort from its troubles. The Work Programme is the only game in town for the long-term employed, who are already understandably sceptical. If employers and charities lose faith, the prime contractors will not be far behind — leaving only the architects of the system within the DWP.

The Work Programme really is too big to fail. Those within the government who remain ideologically wedded to the payment by results system at the heart of the Work Programme need to start asking themselves if the pressure on contractors to deliver will inevitably lead to abuses such as those witnessed under London’s bridges over Jubilee weekend.

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