During the election campaign two years ago, one of David Cameron's big selling-points was his intention to create a Big Society. He was short on detail but the general idea was that a Conservative government would encourage volunteering and get us more involved in our communities. I suspected it might turn into something more coercive, along the lines of the workfare schemes which have been so controversial in the United States.
Now, after 20 months of the coalition, we're beginning to get a sense of how the Big Society will operate. Imagine an unemployed graduate who volunteers to work in a local museum while claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. She enjoys the work, feels she's doing something useful and hopes the experience will eventually lead to a paid job. Everyone benefits and it's exactly what the Government wants the unemployed to do – the Big Society in action.
So why is the Government forcing people like Cait Reilly to give up a placement in a museum to work unpaid in a branch of a hugely successful discount chain? Ms Reilly, who is 22 and gets the princely sum of £53.45 in weekly benefits, had to stop doing voluntary work at the Pen Room Museum in Birmingham when she was sent to work at a branch of the budget store, Poundland. Ms Reilly was told she risked losing her Jobseeker's Allowance if she turned down the two-week placement, but she understood it would lead to a period of training and a job interview. She says she and five other claimants swept floors and stacked shelves, and she didn't get an interview.
Poundland sells everything in its stores for £1 and has bucked the prevailing economic trend. Turnover increased by 25.8 per cent to £642m in the 12 months to March 2011, while profits were up by 34 per cent to £31.7m. Its shelves have to be stacked by somebody and it seems reasonable to ask why the company can't use some of its soaring profits to create real jobs, even if they pay the minimum wage.
Last week, Ms Reilly became a whipping-girl for the right-wing press when it emerged that she's launching a legal action against the Government. Indignant commentators missed the point, possibly because of their reflexive loathing of the Human Rights Act which outlaws "forced or compulsory" labour. Ms Reilly's solicitor, Jim Duffy, argues that Jobcentres are forcing people into "futile, unpaid labour for weeks or months at a time" in contravention of the Act.
His concerns echo a study commissioned by the Labour government in 2008, which looked at workfare schemes in the US, Canada and Australia. The researchers found little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding permanent jobs, while reducing the time available to look for paid work. There's also the danger that workfare replaces paid jobs with unpaid ones, institutionalising poverty while doing little to bring down unemployment.
I don't have any problem with the unemployed doing something in return for benefits. Many charities and social organisations are crying out for volunteers, and a sense of doing something worthwhile lifts self-esteem. If Cameron means what he says, he could take the simple step of ensuring that no one is required to work without pay for a commercial organisation. Otherwise, the Big Society will start to look like a cover for yet more favours for big business.