The Caitt Reilly Affair

The Caitt Reilly Affair has been playing out in the media and courts for several months and has finally reached an end with a judge ruling against the way in which the government implemented several of its work schemes. Cue angry denunciations of the workshy, panic that all work schemes will be ruled illegal and over-egged denunciations of state-sanctioned slavery. The whole sorry affair certainly makes good copy for the newspapers and has allowed zealots of both left and right to froth freely at the mouth, but it seems as if everyone involved – the media, the government, the courts, even Caitt Reilly herself – have forgotten what the core issues of the case were – sadly meaning that the real issues, serious issues, will be ignored in favour of hysterical pronouncements.

The simple fact was that Caitt Reilly was defrauded by the work scheme from beginning to finish. This had nothing to do with whether or not such schemes are fair, get people into work or anything like that. The core issue was that the scheme, whether or not a good thing in itself, was not being applied properly or fairly within the parameters of the scheme’s rules. This was indefensible as it meant the rules were not being adhered to. For those who didn’t pay any attention to what actually happened beyond the misleading headlines, it went something like this. Caitt Reilly was invited take part on a work scheme which, she was told, would not affect her benefits if she decided it wasn’t suited to her and wanted to leave and which, after completion, would entitle her to a guaranteed job interview (not a guaranteed job, but an interview). She agreed to take part only to find that the placement on offer was two weeks shelf-stacking at Poundland, which, rightly or wrongly, she didn’t feel was suitable (especially as it meant taking leave from an existing voluntary position); asking to drop out, she discovered that, far from being free to do so, as she had been told, she would lose her benefits. Sticking with it, she ended the placement thinking that, at least, she would have a job interview. For some reason, that didn’t occur. Thus, the entire placement was ‘sold’ to her on a fraudulent basis and, given that it disrupted an existing placement, was potentially damaging to her search for a job. Sadly, rather than sticking to the facts, it seems as Caitt has allowed herself to be swept up in her lawyers’ headline-grabbing fantasies and lose sight of the real issue – that jobseekers deserve to be treated with honesty and respect, the same as everyone else.

Of course, things have been complicated by the fact that her pathetic placement (two weeks?!) was with a commercial company. Having been on work placements a couple of times in my life, I know that it can feel a little galling working for a fraction of the minimum wage (especially when it is diverting one away from the search for an actual paying job), but it is tolerable when it is on behalf of a charity. Working for a pittance for a commercial company (you know, one of those that exists to make a profit for its owners) is wrong. Subsidise a position or pay for the worker’s training whilst the company pays their salary, but don’t give a company free labour! Help charities or help the community, but don’t help the fat cats boost their profits by not paying wages to workers! Especially as we read reports of such companies cutting the hours of paid workers, replacing with people on work schemes. That is not only immoral but counterproductive, given that such schemes are supposed to help the unemployed into paid work, not widen unemployment…

Rather than waffling about people being workshy or modern-day slavery, people need to open their eyes to the inadequacies of such schemes. Two weeks shelfstacking helps nobody. The schemes I went on were both of six months duration and one led to several years of volunteering with Barnardo’s. I have also experienced a failed work scheme where 90% of the time was spent sitting around doing and the other 10% involved work that I was physically unsuited to due to my disability – luckily, I was able to ask to go elsewhere, went to Barnardo’s instead and got some valuable experience; not everyone will be as lucky. The issue isn’t whether work schemes are good or bad – when properly and fairly applied, they are a good thing – but why the system is so broken that many schemes are flawed, mismanaged and misapplied. Make the system better and fewer people would languish on the dole, their skills atrophying.

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