Leading article: Ministers must show that back-to-work schemes pay


The resignation of Emma Harrison as the Prime Minister's so-called "back-to-work tsar" capped a week in which work in its many aspects – preparation for it, the lack of it, the nature of it and the rewards for it – was seldom absent from the public discussion.

The announcement from Poundland that it was to cease its participation in one particular work-experience scheme also lent the whole debate a certain symmetry. It was, after all, with Poundland, and the complaint brought by Cait Reilly, an unemployed graduate, about having had to work unpaid there, that this seething can of political worms first opened.

So far, however, the discussion has generated far more heat than light. As companies have queued up to exit government schemes, it has not been at all clear whether they are ceasing co-operation altogether or, as Tesco and Poundland are apparently doing, trying to stipulate that participation on the part of jobseekers is voluntary. Nor has it been clear whether the companies are responding to genuine public concern, or allowing themselves to be steamrollered by a social-media campaign orchestrated by a vocal minority.

Two things have become clear, however. The first is the number and variety of back-to-work schemes in existence – which cannot but be confusing to the uninitiated. The second is the belated and lacklustre way in which the Government has defended its corner. Its first and biggest mistake was not to scotch the denigration of such schemes as "slave labour". No one is enslaved. Everyone receives their jobseeker's allowance and other attendant state benefits. If, as a broad swathe of public opinion believes, it is reasonable to ask those receiving taxpayer-funded benefits to do something in return, there is not too much to object to here.

Of course, it is not quite so simple. One complication arises from the fact that many of these schemes are with private companies. This means that "work experience" people work alongside those who are on the payroll – opening the possibility, denied by the companies, that they are exploiting "free" or "cheap" labour and have less need to recruit on the open market. This is an obvious danger – a danger, indeed, with unpaid work experience everywhere – and the terms on which it is organised need to be monitored carefully.

Complaints might be fewer if such schemes were linked mostly to charities or not-for-profit companies. But – and this is another message the Government has failed to get across – big retail companies, such as Tesco, provide a great many of the country's new entry-level jobs; their size means they can also offer advancement in different areas. Stacking shelves or operating a till can become a route to a better job, and the discipline of working – turning up on time and the rest – is something that those who have never worked or only sporadically or not at all may well lack. Experience and a reference are not to be sneezed at.

The Government has only itself to blame that it has been forced so soon on to the back foot. It must now demonstrate that such schemes really can provide a stepping stone to work; ensure that companies do not exploit their unpaid recruits – perhaps encouraging them to pay a modest top-up to benefits – and reiterate that jobseeker's allowance means just that. Above all, though, ministers must persist. Helping people into work, whether first-timers or long-term unemployed, is a worthwhile, indeed an essential, project – and one that some cack-handed government public relations must not be allowed to derail.