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workprogrammeThe Coalition’s Work Programme is a sham system designed to funnel money from the government to so-called ‘providers’ – private companies whose idea of training forces participants to prove they have the simplest literacy and numeracy skills before placing them in six-week limited positions for companies keen to exploit free workers.

That’s the grim message in Disregarded: The True Story of the Failure of the UK’s Work Programme, by David Dennis. He’s a man who knows his subject – the book is the result of his own time as a participant.

According to the book’s publicity material, “shocking descriptions of his time spent at a for-profit skills training centre show that the unemployed are considered a scourge on society and are treated as such.

“Despite the government’s assurances that the scheme is working to reduce the millions of unemployed, Dennis shows, through his own experience with the programme, that it is inefficient, inept, and fundamentally unhelpful to those who need it most – those hungry and able to work.”

That’s it in a nutshell, according to the author. “What I witnessed at my training centre was a complete shambles and a waste of time for everyone involved,” he told Vox Political. “I spent about 12 months there, on and off, and I don’t know anyone who got a job through them.”

The book itself makes the situation explicit:

This programme essentially uses the unemployed as unpaid slave labour forces for six weeks’ duration for some of the country’s largest companies – highly profitable companies that can absolutely afford to hire people for a decent wage… This would not lead to paid employment… This was a simple case of a company taking advantage of a recession.

“The classes are not put together with a view to the skills of those on the programme,” explained the author. The architect with 20 years’ experience and the recent school leaver both find themselves in the same basic maths class. Literally, we were doing computerised tutorials that were primary school level.”

I arrived early for my first interview at the learning provider building. The building had several stories and as soon as I entered I could see what the entrance requirements were– long term unemployment. The lift, with its dank smell of urine, was unappealing. I walked four flights of stairs and finally reached the right level. “Training” the sign shouted. I walked towards it and opened the door. 

The entrance room was small, a pot plant in the corner and a dishevelled man sat behind the desk. 

“Name?” he asked.

“David Dennis,” I replied.

“Occupation?” he said with a grin. “Oh wait, you haven’t got one!”

“I will have someday and I’ll be paying your wages,” I bit back.

“Sure,” he said with a grin. “Take a seat.”

I sat down as he picked up the phone and dialled through to explain that Mr Dennis had arrived.

“Dennis, David?” the woman said, as she entered the waiting room. “Follow me,” she said without even looking at me. I stood and followed her into a classroom. “We need to do a diagnostic test to see if you can read, count and do the most basic of learning.”

“I can,” I replied. “I have GCSE’s and A Levels and I received very high marks.”

She didn’t take any notice. “You have one hour to complete these tests.”

“Excuse me,” I said as I began to feel like the invisible man. “I can talk, you know.”

“I do not wish you to talk,” she snorted. “I wish you to do your diagnostic tests,” she explained. “I do not wish to hear about tests you passed once upon a time.”

I was shocked. I sat down at the computer and took the diagnostic tests.

To my mind, they were a complete joke. Questions such as: Where does the full stop go in this sentence? “Anna walked down to the beach” Well, let’s see? Where does a full-stop normally go? Where does the capital letter go in this sentence? “the alligator swam through the water”. Ninety-eight more of these basic literacy questions followed. The maths assessment was equally as ludicrous. I was completely insulted by this absurdity. The very fact that not only had I passed my GCSEs and A-Levels, I had received very high marks on them, should have exempted me from this degradation. There was obviously no pre-vetting process based on previous educational credentials.

I dutifully completed the test and waited for her to come back. Eventually, an hour passed and finally she returned.

“Have you finished?”

“Yes,” I replied with a smile. “Within about ten minutes.”

“You rushed them,” she accused. “Don’t blame me if you have failed.”

“I didn’t fail them,” I replied. “I know where full stops go and I know how to add and calculate percentages.”

Without listening she took the computer and looked at the results. I had scored highly and I thought I had proved my worth.

“You did alright,” she said with a shrug. “We can improve on that though.”

“How can you improve on 100%?” I asked.

“Those tests are the easiest we have,” she said . “We expect people to pass with at least 20%.”

“Well let me have a bash at your others,” I asked as I grew older every second.

“No,” she said dryly. “You are not ready yet.”

“I see,” I replied, already knowing what the game was. This woman knew she was stuck with me and needed to show some improvement to claim payment from the government. This way she could say that I had started favourably with the lower test scores and passed the higher ones with her guidance. What a complete scam.

“You will begin intensive revision on Monday.”

“I thought I was going to learn ‘retail’ here?”

“Well, you’re not,” she decided. “You must learn Maths and English first.”

So that was the game plan. This company would teach me skills I already had mastered and then charge the government for the pleasure of it all.

“I was told by my advisor that qualifications gained in school were irrelevant and I should not put them on my CV,” he said. “The mandatory CV template is useless and allows for no self-expression.”

“I was also sent on a Workfare assignment to “a leading gardening company”, and again, that was a complete farce. I have 13 GCSEs and three ‘A’ Levels and they sent me to do manual labour – and here’s the good part: When I asked for protective gear like a pair of gloves, which were mandatory in the health and safety video we watched, not I, nor anyone else, received them.”

The book reveals that there is a high turnover of staff on the Work Programme: “In the months I was on the programme, my tutors and advisors changed endlessly. There was no continuity and the calibre of the teaching staff was appalling. To my knowledge, none had a teaching background and many were completely unprofessional.”   Sanctions are used to discriminate against the unemployed and used to bully them, the book states.

And ex-prisoners attend the Work Programme skills sessions along with school leavers. “I find this to be not only socially irresponsible, but again indicates everyone just gets lumped in together without regard to personal experience or qualifications,” said Mr Dennis.

“I was approached by an ex-prisoner with an offer to get into less-than-legal dealings. Had I been desperate or more vulnerable, I could have easily fallen into a deep trap.”

Disregarded is available from Amazon as either an e-book or in a standard, print version. My understanding is that it costs just £2.

I’ll leave the last word to Mr Dennis: “It’s a good-ol’-boy system between the owners of these companies and Cameron’s cronies. Either that, or just a pass the buck situation whereby the government can say they’ve “handled the problem” by putting it in the hands of these training centres but with no obvious supervision or managed thought from the top.

“This programme really needs to be exposed for what it is – a way for these private training companies to take taxpayers’ money from the government. They certainly aren’t helping those in true need.”