The Work Programme – a survival guide


The Work Programme is a 2-year stint of activities, which are supposed to make you more ‘employable’, administered by private companies subcontracted to the DWP. You still have to keep up regular contact with the Jobcentre, as instructed.

Occupying Triage

Occupation of Work Programme Provider, Triage,  in Dundee

Who is put on the Programme?

You can be referred onto the programme if you are on JSA, ESA (in the Work Related Activity Group -WRAG) or on Universal Credit and not working or only earning a very low amount. This is mandatory – if you are told to go on the programme you don’t have an option to refuse – though the jobcentre can decide whether or not to refer you so, as with all such instructions, you can try and argue that it is not a reasonable approach in your particular circumstances, or show that they have not followed the correct procedures. How soon the jobcentre can send you on the programme depends on your age and previous experience: e.g. if you are over 25 they can refer you after a year on JSA; if you are just out of prison you can be referred as soon as you sign on. (You can find the full list of who can be sent when in Chapter 2 of the Provider Guidance)

What if you get a job?

Once you start, you remain in the programme – and under their watchful eye – for the full two years even if your circumstances change, including if you get a job, though the requirements on you will be different. If you find a job before your programme start date, they may still try and get you in. You can ask the Jobcentre to cancel the referral, and if necessary you could close down your claim.  (The guidance notes do usefully point out that the programme will complete early if the participant becomes deceased.)

What tasks can they set?

What you are made to do is very much up to the company running the scheme. The only real requirement is that it is supposed to make you more likely to get a job. (Interestingly, the DWP has deemed it necessary to point out in their guidance to these companies that ‘We do not want participants to undertake activities which will be of no benefit to them, for example applying for jobs for which they are unsuitable for.’ See Universal Credit Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 3B, 3.18)

Do I have to sign their documents?

You will probably be presented with documents to sign at your induction to the programme and when they send you to outside organisations. The DWP has said (in these FOI responses from 2014 and 2015, that there is no sanctionable requirement to sign documents or forms drafted by the Work Programme Provider; and the experience of people working with the SUWN, ECAP and other activist groups is that without these signed documents the providers are limited in what they can make you do. In particular, they need your permission to share your data with any third party, and to show that you have understood health and safety regulations. (This can prove especially useful if they try and send you to work placements – see below.) You will be put under pressure to sign, so try and have a friend with you, or, if this is not possible, ask to take the documents home as you are unhappy about signing anything without advice. If they remain insistent you can ask – as with any of their requests – for them to explain in writing why it needs to be done and what would be the consequences of you failing to do so. You can also show them a copy of the FOI responses above. Permission to share data under the data protection act must be given freely and in knowledge of the consequences. It is important that you still show willing to do everything else asked of you. Then, when you are sent a letter accusing you of failing to comply, you can respond that you have done everything asked except sign the documents, which you are not required to do.

How can you avoid workfare?

Besides training courses and job applications, mandatory activities can include work placements (or workfare) where you are made to do unpaid work on pain of being sanctioned. So, although there are no more people being referred to ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ or ‘Community Work Placements’ there is still scope for you to be sent on other workfare schemes. If you are on JSA or ESA-WRAG you can be mandated onto a Community Benefit Work Placement. This can happen more than once and the placements can be of any length, but they are supposed to be of benefit to the community. You can also be asked to go on Work Experience, but this is not mandatory and you can also leave early. (A person on JSA can still get sanctioned via Work Experience if they have been mandated to keep good behaviour or are made to leave due to ‘gross misconduct’.) This is different from a Sector-Based Work Academy placement which has to offer you a job interview at the end and which is voluntary to start with but can’t be left early without incurring a sanction. If you are on Universal Credit, the company running the programme has even greater freedom to choose what to make you do. (The DWP describes this as a ‘black box’ system.)

If you are told to go and work for a company or organisation you should always ask if this is mandatory, and even if it is not mandatory to start with if it would become mandatory to stay until the end. The Work Programme Provider is required to give you formal written notice of any mandatory activity, either by hand or by post. They also have to let you see your full Action Plan.

If you are mandated to go on a work placement, and object to being made to work for nothing, then you can refuse to sign the documents relating to the placement – as explained above. People who have done this have found it an effective way of avoiding forced labour.

If you also let us know which businesses or organisations are exploiting people through workfare we can name and shame them.

What can’t they make you do?

When you are mandated to do something they have to follow the correct procedures and they have to take account of your circumstances – that means things like your health or disability, childcare responsibilities, available transport, your skills, and any agreement with the jobcentre limiting your available hours. It would not be considered reasonable for them to make you apply for a job where travel costs and child care would wipe out a high percentage of your income. (No figures are given so you would have to argue this one.)

If you are on ESA or Income Support you can’t be made to apply for jobs. If you are on JSA they can’t make you go on a work trial or a government-funded apprenticeship, apply for a zero hour contract, become self-employed, take a job that is vacant due to industrial action (black-leg), apply for a job that is at more than 90 minutes travel distance, or create a public profile in Universal Jobmatch. The rules for Universal Credit are different and you can be made to apply for zero-hour contracts. If you have been made to apply for a job and you are considered to have behaved badly in the job interview, that is deemed to be the same as if you had refused to apply.

What about costs for travel and childcare?

You are not meant to be worse off financially through being on the work programme so they should cover costs for all travel and childcare necessary for you to attend everything you are told to do.

Is looking for work a full time job?

If you are on Universal Credit – and without health or caring restrictions – you are expected to spend at least 35 hours a week in work search and other activities. However, the official guidance documents do allow some room for argument, and this could form the basis of a sanction appeal: ‘If the participant does not look for work for their expected number of hours, Jobcentre Plus will consider whether they have done all that can be reasonably expected of them.’ (See Universal Credit Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 8, clause 8.17.) (Unlike JSA, Universal Credit has no allowance at all for holidays.)

How might you get sanctioned?

If you don’t do something that you have been mandated to do the Work Programme Provider company will report your non-compliance to the DWP, who are supposed to ask you to give good reason why you failed to comply before deciding whether to impose a sanction. Different types of misdemeanour are punished with sanctions of different length, and the length increases on the second and third offence. Some sanctions under Universal Credit get longer by every day that you don’t complete the mandated action – this should be made clear in your original instructions. Hardship Payments (at 60% of basic benefit level) have to be applied for from the Jobcentre, who will ask you to prove your need. For those on Universal Credit these are loans that have to be repaid and you have to reapply every month. If you can’t get Hardship Payments you can apply to your local council for a crisis grant from the Scottish Welfare Fund. If you are sanctioned it is always worth asking for a Mandatory Reconsideration, and, if that fails, putting in an Appeal. Appeals are looked at by someone outwith the DWP and have a high success rate.

What else are they monitoring?

The DWP is obsessed with monitoring behaviour, and the basic information about you that they pass onto the company running the Work Programme includes any ‘incidents’ that have occurred in the jobcentre. When you finish the programme they write up an exit report that can include comments about your ‘changes in attitude’ and ‘level of compliance’. You are entitled to be given a copy of that report.

What more and what next?

This is the system as it stands on 1 June 2016. You can find more detail from the DWP’s Work Programme Provider Guidance documents  from where most of this was abstracted. In April 2017 everything is set to change, and in Scotland the replacement system will be devolved – though it is still unclear how much freedom there will be to run something significantly different from in England. Westminster will retain powers over all the benefits discussed here, and even mitigation of sanctions has been expressly excluded by the Scotland Bill.