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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

The employability industry: a squalid world of profit and subsidy?

This opinion piece is over 7 years old
 

​Martin Sime argues that a massive rethink is needed if unemployed people are to benefit from limited employability powers coming to the Scottish Parliament.

You must have seen one of them recently standing on a busy street corner looking miserable.

They wear a sort of cardboard jumper emblazoned with an advert for junk food pizza - the result, no doubt, of some clever advertising wheeze to get product exposure on the cheap.

As a sales strategy my guess is that it is spectacularly unsuccessful. Why would anyone buy this stuff if the visual association reminds you of the systematic humiliation and degradation of young people? But it also speaks to the almost casual disregard which has crept in to UK government policy towards those who are unemployed.

Now I don’t know whether there is a formal link between the tabard wearers on the streets and JobCentre Plus and the companies which currently run the Work Programme and other programmes in Scotland.

I suspect there will be a connection somewhere, (a greasing of the palms or a failure to pay a decent (or any?) wage) to those who are required to hang around outside supermarkets and the like in order to feed themselves.

Martin Sime, SCVO

the employability industry, including some in the third sector, need to put their own interests aside if we are to help unemployed people

Martin Sime, SCVO

What matters most is not this squalid world of profit and subsidy at the taxpayers’ expense that so much of the employability world has become, it is the impact which this is having on the lives of so many young people. Progressive public services now talk about the benefits of empowerment and asset-based approaches: this is the exact opposite.

When the contracts for “mandatory activity” - a euphemism for forced labour - were first announced, the UK employment minister talked about picking up litter as an illustration of what might be required in return for continued access to benefits.

Ironically, all young people who had failed to find a job under the Work Programme (or, more accurately, who had been failed by it) are required to work for no pay. A subsidiary of Lloyds Banking Group won the contract to make profits from this miserable work.

Over the horizon lies the hope that Scotland can do better when we inherit responsibility for such programmes in the new devolution deal. The First Minister announced last week that at least some of this would start from April 2017. Despite some helpful rhetoric about being more positive and helpful, the omens are not all good.

Firstly, a traditional behind the scenes battle for control of the money has erupted between local government and Skills Development Scotland.

It is then a short journey to another wrong question about the best way to commission services which extract value from those who win contracts as providers.

We know where such a market-led approach leads - providing the best service to the most able, many of whom would get a job anyway in the current job market. The rest get left behind, mostly parked with voluntary organisations at little cost to the contractors.

If we want to help unemployed people to realise their potential, it is best not to start from here. Putting the interests of purchasers or providers at centre stage marginalises the role which unemployed people themselves need to make in their own journey towards work, which ought to be central. As in social care, funding should follow the choices people make rather than being used to predetermine the route to be taken.

Secondly, as with much of the Smith Commission/vow/enduring settlement farrago all is not quite as it seems.

The interface between reserved JobCentre Plus and devolved employability is far from settled - there is even a suggestion that Scottish programmes will be required to accept people with benefit conditionalities, dragging a Scottish Government into implicit cahoots with the UK regime. Unsurprisingly, no one seems to want to talk about this.

It is also fair to say that the Smith Commission failed to think through the consequences when they left Universal Credit and most adult welfare powers reserved to Westminster.

Any successful Scottish investment in getting unemployed people into work is thus of direct benefit to the UK Treasury in benefits foregone rather than being available for reinvestment in the next generation of jobseekers. The opportunity to create a virtuous and more sustainable circle for funding employability has been missed.

Now is the time to be thinking about such fundamentals if we are going to try to make the most of the limited opportunities that are coming our way.

Yes, we can help unemployed people to help themselves on their journey to work but the employability industry, including some in the third sector, need to put their own interests aside if we are going to rise to that challenge.

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). SCVO has recently published a discussion paper on the role of the third sector in employability in the future.

 

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