On the Today Programme this morning, Employment Minister Chris Grayling defended the government's Work Experience programme in light of the recent controversies around it. Here's a full transcript of the interview:
Chris Grayling: Hello there.
ED: Let’s just go through this. There are two schemes, there’s a work experience scheme which is kind of voluntary for young people but if they are on benefits they are often told they’ll lose their benefits if they don’t enter it, correct?
ED: You’re not paid though for the placement?
ED: So you don’t have to take it, you can say ‘no, I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to work’?
CG: You don’t have to take it.
ED: And they never say you’ll lose your benefits if you don’t?
CG: The only circumstances in which you can lose your benefits, and the reason we’ve got a sanction in place, is really if you walk out much later in the time you’re there without good reason. We’ll investigate and if there’s a problem you can face the same sanction you’d get for not turning up for your fortnightly signing on at the Job Centre.
ED: So it is an entirely, entirely voluntary scheme, that one?
CG: Entirely voluntary.
ED: Then the other one, which is the work programme for the long-term unemployed, not just the young but long-term unemployed, and that one has work experience built into it which is or can be compulsory?
CG: Well this is a bit of a red herring. The only scheme that we have at the moment that involves mandatory activity is a short term scheme operated by Job Centre Plus called Mandatory Work Activity and it is really aimed at people where a Job Centre Plus advisor feels a bit of… somebody’s job search has gone off the rails, either they’re not trying or they are really kind of out of sorts. They can be referred for a month’s full-time community work. It is absolutely clear that that work is carried out on community benefiting projects out there, it might be helping a local sports club with youth outreach work, it might be environmental work. There is no circumstance in which we would mandate any individual to take part in work activity for a big company, that doesn’t happen.
ED: Okay, so there was the case of Kate Riley who was dispatched to Poundland to work unpaid and who was suing and saying it was bad for her career to have to do that. What scheme was she on when she was sent off there?
ED: Which scheme was she… she was under the impression she was being forced to do it, whether or not she was, so which scheme was that?
CG: She was referred to a work experience placement which she completed and it is a matter of record that no complaint was made by her until after she had completed her placement and…
ED: That wasn’t the work programme, that was the work experience programme?
CS: That was the work experience programme.
ED: Okay, that is the one that a lot of employers have said they want to leave. We’re not quite clear whether Poundland is leaving that one or the other one…
CG: I’m not entirely clear either. I mean, you’ve got to understand…
ED: Why do you think all these employers are saying we don’t want to have anything to do with it? They are saying we don’t want to have people thinking that we’re employing slave labour.
CG: What’s happened in the last week is we’ve got a lot of companies who are very jumpy. They are under pressure from a big internet campaign that is being run by an organisation that is a front for the Socialist Workers Party. Now the high street retail sector is going through a rough time at the moment, if you are running a company and you are getting strings of emails attacking you, it is very unsettling. It’s a false campaign. Let me give you an example, my own email address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco so I don’t accept that the scale of the campaign is very large, it is a small number of activists who are deliberately targeting these companies and trying to destabilise them.
ED: Do you know, I think there is a more deep-rooted scepticism about these schemes. I am going to read something which I think the Prime Minister said yesterday which gets to the nub of this, because it is a very interesting thing he said, 'Put a young person into college for a month’s learning, unpaid, is hailed as a good thing. Put a young person into a supermarket for a month’s learning, unpaid, it’s slammed as slave labour', Mr Cameron said. Do you really think there is a kind of equality between putting someone unpaid into college and the learning experience, using his word, they get working unpaid in a supermarket?
CG: Well let me ask you a question. We are very hung up at the moment on retailers and supermarkets, if we put a young person for a month into a technology company to get experience, most people would say that’s a good thing. Now a work experience scheme covers technology companies, covers care companies, it covers manufacturing companies, it also happens to cover retailing. Now retailing is one of our biggest areas of employment in the UK, some of our supermarkets are some of the biggest employers in the country, they have hugely diverse career opportunities. If you are the manager of a big supermarket you are running a business of tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds. Somehow, for some reason, there seems to be a view that a career in a supermarket is a bad thing. Now that’s just…
ED: But the amount that you are going to learn stacking shelves is not going to be very great if you aspire or have ambitions to go well beyond that. It’s been over-sold hasn’t it? I mean calling it a learning experience matching going to college, that’s a very, very strange way of framing it isn’t it?
CG: Well you are assuming that all somebody does when they walk through a door of a supermarket is told there’s a trolley, stack the shelves and of course the work experience scheme is much more than that. Typically…
ED: What do you learn when you go and do work experience in supermarket?
CG: Well you learn how a major retailer works. In most cases most retailers will get somebody working with different departments in the store, they will typically have somebody mentoring them to show them different parts of how the business works, the logistics part, the customer service part, some of the back-up, IT part. You know, these are big businesses with big career opportunities and if you are interested in a retail career, if you are unemployed and you think it might be an option for you, surely…
ED: If you are stacking shelves you’ll pick up the skills you need?
CG: But you say if you are interested in stacking shelves but what about if you are interested in becoming a store manager of a supermarket? All the big retailers, take John Lewis... John Lewis, every one of their staff starts working on the shop floor. Now surely – from chief exec, HR and so forth, what’s wrong with that? I mean it’s the front line of a retail business, that’s what happens.
ED: What record, what data have you to suggest that these schemes gets people off benefits? I mean I’ve got a graph in front of me from a group called Inclusion who’ve tried to look at the benefit, the record of people on those schemes relative to the ones who are not on those schemes and it seems to suggest that the kind of propensity to stay on Job Seekers Allowance is more or less the same for both groups.
CG: Well that’s not our experience. I mean the first thing…
ED: You’ve got data on that have you?
CG: The data we’ve got so far for the work experience scheme, which is now a few months old, is that the young people who go through the scheme, eleven weeks after they’ve started, eleven weeks after the first day of their work experience, around 50 per cent are off benefits and we know that a large number of those young people actually are staying on in employment with the employers who give them the placement and that’s surely a good thing. Now we’re now crunching further numbers and all of the evidence we can see is that this does better than simply leaving people on JSA. It actually helps more young people get into work.
ED: I come back then to why employers who can presumably see that this is a good scheme, if it’s as good as you say it is, who know that it isn’t slave labour, who know that it’s voluntary as you say it is voluntary, why would they all then be leaving the scheme? They’re not going to be cowed by a small group of Socialist Workers sending them emails.
CG: Well as we sit here today we’ve got more than 100 organisations with national partnerships with us. Not one single company has withdrawn. There is lots of gossip around, lots of suggestions. Take a practical example, Sainsbury’s are alleged to have pulled out of the scheme. Sainsbury’s have never been part of the scheme but Sainsbury’s made it very clear publicly that they run their own work experience scheme so they’ve not needed to join ours, they run a big work experience scheme.
ED: Good point, now while you’ve mentioned Sainsbury’s I just wanted to mention one other thing because Sainsbury’s have actually said something else. They have actually been hassled by a company called A4e, their local store managers, even though they have never been part of this scheme, they have actually had to write to their branches in order to prevent – and this is quoting from their own statement ‘that our branch managers do not inadvertently participate in work experience schemes’.They say ‘we don’t work, we never have entered into partnership with A4E, despite this their representatives have continued to approach our stores at local level. We’ve had to remind our managers that they should only use our existing programmes.’ This sounds like a very odd way for an organisation working on behalf of Job Centre Plus to be behaving.
CG: Well there was an incident that we picked up last year from a local manager in the A4e organisation. We stamped on it very, very quickly, it shouldn’t have happened, both A4e accepted it shouldn’t have happened, Sainsbury’s said it shouldn’t have happened. In any big programme, the work programme, the work experience programme, the other things we’re doing encompass a large number of people in a large number of places. You’ll always have little glitches but we dealt with that one very quickly at the time.
ED: Let me just ask finally, you still have confidence in A4e on the contracts that it is still bidding for and that it already has?
CG: Well I always very clearly take the view that anyone, whether it is an individual or an organisation is innocent until proven guilty. We have been very clear that we will watch very carefully what happens in the police investigation. If there is any evidence of systemic fraud in our relationship with A4e we would not hesitate to terminate our contractual relationships with them.
ED: Okay, Chris Grayling, Employment Minister, thank you very much.