A former Labour minister in the Department of Work and Pensions has cautioned against drawing links between unpaid Diamond Jubilee stewards forced to sleep rough at the weekend and the government's flagship Work Programme.
Stephen Timms, whose ministerial career in Labour governments included stints at DWP and the Treasury, said that while he was a fierce critic of the Work Programme in general, he didn't think the incident was a fair reflection on what the coalition was trying to achieve.
"There are many, many problems with the work programme, but I don't think this incident last weekend tells us very much about what's happening with the work programme," he told us.
Timms said while there were serious questions surrounding the practices of both Close Protection UK and the charity which supplied the work experience staff, the "over-riding principle" of allowing welfare to work providers a high degree of autonomy was sensible.
Close Protection UK was supplied the unpaid workers by a charity, Tomorrow's People, which has been running since 1984. The charity has launched an internal investigation into how their volunteers were made to sleep under London Bridge and denied access to toilet facilities during a long shift on Sunday.
"Tomorrow's People will only get payment if these young people get jobs in the Olympics or at some later stage in the year. I think that's a reasonably sensible way of doing things," he told The Huffington Post on Wednesday.
Timms dismissed suggestions of a causal link between the Work Programme and the unfair treatment of the volunteers at the weekend, saying the questions were for Tomorrow's People to answer. "How much was this company paid, who were the people making the promises, and how were they vetted?" Timms wondered.
But when asked about whether the incident showed flaws in the so-called "black-box" approach to the Work Programme - where job providers have a large amount of discretion in how they get people into work - Timms said: "I don't actually see that it tells us anything about that."
His comments appear to run partially contrary to claims made by Lord Prescott on Monday morning, who called for an investigation into whether the Work Programme was essentially the government exploiting "cheap labour."
However Timms told us he agreed that Prescott was correct to highlight concerns that unpaid volunteers would lack the training which would bring them into line with industry standards.
And while Timms told HuffPost: "The principle that providers on the Work Programme should be paid if they get people into jobs is quite a sound one," he suggested the government's flagship workfare project was at risk of failing later this year because the projections for it had been drawn up when the labour market was much healthier.
"All those were based on a labour market that was much better than the current one. The government says it doesn't matter if people go bust because they won't get paid. The problem is that's not helping unemployed people," Timms told us.
Last week the Employment Minister Chris Grayling tried to paint a positive gloss on the number of people who'd found a job through the Work Programme, amid concerns that the take-up rate was levelling off. Grayling warned Work Programme providers they would be replaced if they didn't pull their socks up, and suggested that some would end up going bust because they weren't delivering what the government wanted.
"The Work Programme was never piloted, they just introduced it nationwide," Timms said. "Some of the problems we'll see later in the year are problems that could've been ironed out if they'd been trialled.
"They were in a rush, they were naive, they didn't understand how to change things, frankly, in government," he added.
Timms also warned that problems at the DWP were stacking up, telling Huffpost that the universal credit was generating a "humungous" IT headache for ministers. But he said that while the government still had wriggle-room for a partial U-turn on universal credit, abandoning the Work Programme was physcially impossible, if not politically.
"With universal credit they could half implement it, so they've just enough to claim they have introduced it on-time, but on the Work Programme they've got nowhere to go. They scrapped everything that existed beforehand, and they are lumbered with the problems that are going to ensue," he predicted.
See also: The best pics from the Diamond Jubilee
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