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Age UK Pulls Out Of Mandatory Work Scheme

December 6, 2012

A high street charity has stopped providing mandatory work placements because of concerns that jobseekers are forced to work in its stores as a condition of their benefits.

Age UK has become the third large charity in three weeks to pull out of the multimillion-pound Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) scheme.

It said it would also pull out of other government-run schemes in order to ensure its volunteers were making the “appropriate choice” to work for the organisation.

The charity said that although it did not have a policy to provide four-week mandatory work activity placements, some of its 450 nationally run stores had developed local links with private companies administering such schemes. It added that a further 169 independent Age UK stores would still make their own decisions on the policy.

Following last month’s decisions by the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research to drop out of the scheme, Age UK said it was now advising its stores to wind up their association with government employment programmes.

The latest charity departure comes days after the DWP handed new powers to job centre managers and back-to-work providers to force sick and disabled benefit claimants into unpaid work placements.

Former Labour communications director Alistair Campbell said the new regulations, which mean the 340,000 people on employment support allowance who’d been placed into the work-related activity group (WRAG) could have 70% of their allowance withheld if they fail to work, were “beyond any sense of decency”.

Campbell, who has written about his own issues with depression, said, “It is frankly beyond belief, and beyond any sense of decency, that patients with severe mental health problems, and serious physical illnesses, are being told they can work and that their benefits will be affected if they don’t.”

“I am all in favour of people who are ill being given hope of getting back into the labour market, but this is not about work for those who can, it is about work for those who can’t so that the government can cut the costs and try to help Osborne’s sums add up.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said that within the disability and mental health sector there was confusion as to why the government had introduced the policy of mandating sick and disabled people into work when there was “very little evidence” that it worked: “I think there is a growing sense of anger and frustration that across the disability sector that this is heading in the wrong direction and it does bemuse people because I think we all know that there are [other] ways of enabling people of getting into work.”

Farmer said people in the WRAG weren’t “scroungers”, adding, “These are people who have been through the work capability assessment and that’s clearly [found] these people aren’t fit for work.”

“That doesn’t mean you should be forgetting about them and leaving them on the scrapheap, but it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to be forcing people into activities when there’s very little evidence that it works.”

The DWP said only a small number of claimants were expected to be mandated into work placements. Where “appropriate”, most would be offered voluntary placements, it said, adding that such placements would be flexible, with full consideration given to a claimant’s health problem or disability.

A spokesperson from the DWP said: “For people on ESA who are expected to go back to work when they’re well enough, a period of work experience is an excellent way to increase skills and confidence. Work experience is completely voluntary. In some circumstances, only where people refuse to take reasonable steps to address a barrier to work, it may be that a short, appropriate mandatory work placement – which must take the claimant’s health into account – would be helpful.

“Mandatory work activity placements benefit local communities while giving jobseekers valuable skills. We are grateful for the continued support of the wider charitable sector in helping unemployed people re-engage with the system and move closer to work.

“Age UK’s decision is entirely a matter for them.”

One claimant, who only wanted to be named as Annie, said the thought she could be forced into work was “terrifying”.

The 34-year-old, who has a teenage daughter, said she had previously worked in administration but now suffered from fibromyalgia, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression.

“I was working until April 2010, but after getting increasingly ill and even after my employer reduced my hours, and simplified my role as much as possible, I just wasn’t well enough to keep going in, even just getting to work was exhausting and painful.”

“My main symptom of fibromyalgia is constant, severe fatigue and exhaustion. I am currently finding it hard to get out of the house to go to the supermarket and having a lot of trouble doing basic things like cooking, bathing etcetera.

“I am not well enough to do work that would actually pay me real money and potentially improve my situation; I’m certainly not well enough to do unpaid work,” she said.

Age UK’s director of people and performance, Caroline Bendelow, said it was a large organisation with 7,000 volunteers: “We are committed to giving all individuals who volunteer with us an enjoyable and fruitful experience, with some finding it a useful way to move closer to the labour market.,” she said.

Asked why Age UK was leaving the government scheme, Bendelow said: “Age UK strives to give all its volunteers the best experience possible and we want volunteering with us to be the appropriate choice for each individual’s circumstances.”

She said there was no head office involvement in government schemes and Age UK was now “working with our shops to end any local links that previously existed to such programmes in isolated areas”.

However, she added that this national policy would not apply to the 169 independently run stores using the Age UK name as they made their own decisions.

“There are also 169 local Age UKs across the country who are independent charities making their own decisions based on the needs of their local communities.”

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