Workfare? This former pilot wants to use his brain, not to push a broom

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The Independent Online
It is either forced labour without human dignity or an opportunity for the unemployed to make a contribution to the community and return to the labour market.

It all depends who you speak to but pilot schemes in Kent and Yorkshire which oblige the unemployed to work or lose their benefits could be the forerunner to a national British version of US-style workfare.

As The Independent revealed yesterday, working for benefits is likely to form a central plank of the Tory party manifesto at the general election and the idea finds supporters of a slightly less strident disposition among policy advisers close to the Labour leader Tony Blair.

Peter Byrne, a 47-year-old former airline pilot on a pilot programme in Maidstone, Kent, is helping with ground clearing at old people's houses. During a five-year period of unemployment he unsuccessfully tried to establish a business but was let down by a partner.

His views of workfare are unlikely to please its advocates. "I don't mind doing voluntary work, in fact I used to do it when I was employed, but this is forced labour. I am not frightened of hard work, but this is an insult to my intelligence."

At his own expense Mr Byrne recently trained as an operator of remote control equipment for the offshore industry. "I should be given an opportunity to look for work with offshore agencies, rather than clearing gardens," he said.

Ministers will derive more satisfaction from the views of Gary Casey, a 39-year-old former carpenter and joiner. "I jumped at the chance," he said of Project Work.

Mr Casey was working as a site agent when he was made redundant from the construction industry. Since then he has suffered from blood pressure and arthritis finding considerable difficulty in securing a job.

As part of his work experience, Mr Casey is organising a charity show to raise funds for a nature conservation organisation. "I'm going to prove to people what I can do," he says. Some of his colleagues who are also supportive of Project Work argue that the black economy in mid-Kent will be undermined by the scheme. They say some claimants are involved in work outside the tax system.

Dave Gibson, a carpenter and builder in his mid-30s from mid-Kent, has no doubt where he stands: "Even the long-term unemployed are entitled to some sort of respect. "They seem to think we are scroungers, cheats, fraudsters and tearaways, but in the main we are normal law-abiding citizens who happen to be unemployed through no fault of our own. It's as if it is a criminal offence to be out of work."

Mr Gibson is one of several thousand people, unemployed for more than two years, who have been obliged to join the Project Work scheme, costing about pounds 12m, in the Maidstone, Medway and Hull areas. Failure to attend a mandatory work experience programme results in a loss of benefit payments.

People who are "vulnerable", in the words of the Department for Education and Employment, will have access to hardship payments at a rate of 40 per cent and sometimes 20 per cent lower than their normal entitlement.

Mr Gibson who is paid his benefit plus pounds 10 to provide his building skills to a voluntary organisation, will take some convincing. A project at Buckmore Park, a racing track near the Medway towns, is little short of a "labour camp", he believes.

Mr Gibson said that people on the programme had no means of getting their views across. "Because we are on the scheme we are no longer officially unemployed. It's simply a means of manipulating the unemployment figures."

Experts are divided on the economics of workfare. The Government had argued that a full-blown national scheme would be too expensive, but the Unemployment Unit pressure group says that the projects have been established "on the cheap" and that they will deliver no benefit to the unemployed and very little to the community.