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Work Experience

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am delighted to have been able to secure this important debate on work experience. I am also delighted to see so many hon. Friends and hon. Members from throughout the House in the Chamber today, to debate a subject that not only is topical and relevant to the recent newsfeed but has seen the concept of work experience turned into a matter of political ideology, rather than of pragmatism in how to help our young people and create opportunity for them. I bring the subject to the House in all seriousness, and out of concern for many of our young constituents whose future well-being could lie in the debate around work experience. I therefore ask right hon. and hon. Members to approach the debate in the spirit of helping our young people into work from a pragmatic rather than what I might describe as an ideological standpoint.

I come to the debate as a parent with two young children. Despite their ages, I am not prevented from being a little concerned about their future and what the employment market will look like by the time that they step into the big, wide world of work, whether from school, college or university. I suspect that many of my thoughts are not far removed from those of most parents throughout the country, which is why I wish to consider briefly what the Government are already doing to tackle youth unemployment, and to put that into the context of the importance of work experience, which will be the focus of the majority of my comments.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree, on pragmatism, that MPs can lead the way? I employ an apprentice, as part of my team working in the House of Commons, but we can also have work experience in our constituency offices—we had 40 in the Hexham office over last summer.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. MPs can certainly show the way practically and, as I will come on to, by supporting people who are willing to give work experience opportunities to our young people.

Youth unemployment is not a new phenomenon in this country, and it has been on an upward trend since 2004, when we were in a better economic position, although getting young people into work should be a priority for any Government regardless of the economic situation. Tomorrow we will see the latest unemployment figures, and we wait to see the figures on youth unemployment with bated breath. The current figures indicate that we have more than 1 million young people unemployed and out of work, which equates to 22% of young people in the country.

It is excellent that my hon. Friend has initiated this debate but, given what he has just said, is it not extraordinary that we are having to have what is a needless debate? It is extraordinary that anyone out there should be opposed to young people getting work experience.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is incumbent on Members of the House to support work experience and any tool that we can put into the toolbox to reduce the shocking number of young people who currently lack opportunity.

To return to our 1 million unemployed young people, if we compare our situation with that in many European Union countries, we will probably see our figures compare reasonably favourably. We should, however, never be satisfied or content to have one in four young people unemployed. For that matter, we should never be content to have any young people out of work. Recently, we have started to see policies put in place by the Government to increase opportunity for our young people. For example, places for apprenticeships have increased by 50% over the past year, to 440,000; my constituency, I am glad to say, has had a 56% increase in apprenticeship take-ups, more than half by young people. The youth contract, starting in April, will also see many more opportunities, including financial incentives for businesses to take on young people, which I hope will mean the creation of up to 160,000 opportunities—as quoted, I believe, by the Department for Work and Pensions, in particular given the £2,275 wage subsidy to support young people.

Under the youth contract, a number of opportunities are coming along in April, but we should also realise that, although we have many opportunities and however many schemes we have, there is always a cohort of young people who struggle to take up such opportunities, often because the education system has failed them and sometimes because they have low self-esteem or no experience or track record in employment. They might have previously experienced employment but had a poor experience.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the advance of academies and free schools, such as the enterprise school being set up in Newcastle, next to my constituency, will provide greater skills and address youth unemployment problems?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For far too long a cohort of young people has been failed by the education system in this country, and we need to ensure that such people have the maximum opportunity to gain a high-quality education. Hopefully, we will reduce the number of people who need work experience. Until that happens, however, it is incumbent on us all to support the principle of work experience, because we need to reach that cohort. Figures from the International Labour Organisation show that, of the young people out of work in this country, more than 50,000 have never had a formal job and 20,000 have poor or no formal qualifications. If we are to reach out to that cohort of young people and if we are serious about getting them back into work and engaging them to become part of the mainstream work force, work experience is an essential tool to have in the toolbox.

Can the hon. Gentleman define the difference between work experience and an internship, because the two phrases are becoming increasingly blurred? There is definitely a difference and it is important to state it. What is it, in his view?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. There is a distinction. With work experience, we are talking about a short-term opportunity for young people; they can be given some short-term experience of work to allow them to get into mainstream employment, often with employers who are keen to take on a certain number of those who have been on work experience and to put them into proper employment. There is a distinction from internships, which have traditionally been used as a method of giving people experience in this place, but also in law firms and all sorts of other professions. There is a distinction, and we need to be alive to that.

Over recent weeks, I have been pretty dismayed by the response to the current Work Experience scheme offered by the Government in partnership with many of our best companies in this country. I have been dismayed by the vitriol towards employers, who have not sought to create a free supply of labour but, on the contrary, have shown a genuine will to give experience and a chance to young people who, for whatever reason, have not been given that chance elsewhere.

I was open to the hon. Gentleman’s comments about not being ideological, so I hoped that he would rebut some of the interventions that he has already had, which were extremely ideological. On the specific question of the Work Experience scheme, does he agree that the work experience must be relevant to the needs and previous experience of the participants?

It does have to be experience, but I hope that the hon. Lady is not taking us down the route of demeaning certain types of employment—I will come on to this in a moment—or of being what I call a job snob. I am sure that she is not seeking to do that at all. Over recent weeks, however, we have seen a small cohort of people who have been willing to show a great deal of vitriol towards some of those companies which were willing to give young people an opportunity. In the debate today and over the past few weeks, we have seen what I consider to be the huge red herring of whether work experience is compulsory or voluntary, and that has been a huge distraction from the real issue.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s disappointment at what has happened in recent weeks. Does he condemn those organisations that have sought to spread fear, and have organised letter-writing campaigns, with no basis? They have made the scheme, which should have been a great success, questionable. Does he welcome the fact that we seem to have dealt with the issue, that the argument seems to have turned around, and that the scheme is now being welcomed?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I agree absolutely. A small number of people—I emphasise that it is a small number—have put their political ideology before the best interests of disadvantaged young people, whom the Government and employers who have taken part in the Work Experience scheme are seeking to help. That is disgraceful, and an indictment of the methods that some of the people in that extremist group use. I hope that today we will hear from the shadow Front-Bench spokesman that the Opposition do not support such groups, and that they support the Government’s scheme to give young people opportunities. It is incumbent on the House to provide as many routes as possible for our young people.

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous with his time. To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), does he agree that a key reason why the scheme is so important and why young people who have taken part speak so highly of it is that the experience that they get and where they are placed is based on the experience they want in an industry that they are interested in going into?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Most of the placements that have been offered to the cohort of young people are relevant to them, and it is important to bear that in mind.

On the debate about the Work Experience scheme over the past few weeks, and the fact that there has been a red herring, or an elephant in the room, about whether it is compulsory, we all know that it is voluntary, and that the only sanctions relate to conduct, and willingness to see the placement through when someone has embarked on that route. That is not irrelevant, but it is not the most relevant issue. The most relevant issue is to give young people, sometimes with what some people call tough love, the opportunity to go out and get themselves into a position where they can compete in the labour market.

In a moment, I shall discuss employers, but before doing so I want to tackle negativity and ideology, which are damaging opportunities for our young people. Later, I shall use the word “unskilled” with extreme caution. There is no doubt that there is a skill in doing any job properly. I am worried about the rhetoric from some people who seek to demean jobs such as shelf-stacking, because there is no doubt that all jobs are important. We all need to start our career somewhere. For some, that may be shelf-stacking. For some that may be their niche, but regardless of that we in the House should show that any job that is legal and above board should be respected. We need to drive the job snobs out and to promote the fact that we support all people who work, whatever they choose to do or whatever they have to do to make a living and to achieve self-respect.

My intervention is now three or four minutes out of date, but I will make it anyway. Does my hon. Friend agree that work experience is the ultimate job interview for a job that might not exist initially? I am a former employer of work experience people. Does he also agree that the great value is that enthusiastic and willing people become part of the team?

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive comment, and he is absolutely right. It is important that businesses seek to grow their own. Many receive a lot of benefit from bringing young people on in that way. He makes the important point that work experience is often a job interview. We are discussing people whose CV may arrive by post in a pile of 20 or 30 other CVs, and the employer may just put it into the filing cabinet, or write back saying that perhaps they will contact the applicant if a suitable vacancy comes along, or it may end up in a filing cabinet on the floor, which is usually a bin. We must ensure that we provide opportunities to people who need a leg-up.

I thank my colleague from Warwickshire for securing this important debate. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have had 16 people doing work experience in my office, and I welcome Thomas Hart, who is in the Public Gallery today. Some employers ignored the protest activity. How can we encourage more employers to ignore it, and to take on the scheme in greater numbers?

I thank my hon. Friend, who, as a fellow Warwickshire MP, knows the importance of getting young people in our area into work. He is absolutely right that we must encourage employers, and ensure that they are not frightened of the vocal minority who seem to put political ideology before young people. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should support the Work Experience programme. It is not a panacea for the whole youth employment issue, and is probably applicable to only a small cohort of people who are difficult to get into work. We should all support the programme, and back employers to the hilt in supporting it.

No matter how unskilled—I have said that I am worried about using that word—a role may be, new staff cannot be brought into a business, whether or not they are doing work experience, without providing training. Some young people will pick up that training more quickly than others, but regardless of that, people must be trained. All employers will say that. So they must invest time, provide training, perhaps buy a uniform, and generally invest in that young person, who may be a member of staff for only a few weeks.

Does the issue not go even deeper than that? The House should celebrate the fact that some companies are a force for social good. They do not just make profits for the shareholder, but provide an enormous amount of employment across the piece, and ensure that this country is put on a sound financial footing. We should celebrate that.

As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I go out and speak to businesses in my constituency, I detect that people are becoming alive to the issue of youth unemployment, and that there is a real will in businesses to try to give young people opportunities, whether through the apprenticeship route, work experience or other parts of the Government’s Work programme. We should embrace the good will in businesses throughout the country and ensure that we fully support them, not demean them or try to make out to the public that they are trying to get something for nothing. At the end of the day, we rely greatly on the good will out there, and we must not spoil or stymie that. If we start to go down that route, we will defeat the object. Given some of the ideologies expressed, however, it seems that some people are willing to see that happen just because the current Government may not be of the same colour as them, and that seems pretty disgraceful.

Will my hon. Friend widen his thinking on the issue to women returning to work? I know from my experience of being a stay-at-home mum for seven years that it is unbelievably difficult to get the confidence to return to the workplace. For me, work experience was the best way to build up work attachment and work habits. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging Ministers to ensure that opportunities for work experience are offered to older people—particularly women—who are an economic force to be reckoned with?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. There is a cohort of people who have perhaps looked after children but are willing and able and capable of returning to the labour market although they may lack confidence. In time, the Work Experience scheme could be widened in the way that she suggests.

I also wish to focus on some of the ladies and gentlemen of Her Majesty’s press who have perhaps not given this issue the fairest of hearings. I appeal to them to dismiss any rhetoric or old-fashioned and outdated views from the far left that they may have, and to think about young people and look to support this policy. By setting out to try to destroy work experience, all they will do is destroy a route to work and an opportunity for our young people. Work experience is not the be-all and end-all for young people, but it is a route into employment nevertheless, and Members of this House should seek to provide as many such routes as practicable to help our young people into work.

As I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, it is welcome that many media outlets, notably the BBC, ITV and The Guardian, offer work experience to young people.

I think that is absolutely fantastic. It is a shame, however, that some of those who work for the publication to which my hon. Friend referred may not share the same view as that taken by their employer. That is sad, and I hope that people will think a little more carefully before making the sorts of comment that may destroy the life chances of the most vulnerable young people in this country.

Safeguards must be in place and we must ensure that we protect young people who may be vulnerable. No hon. Member would want any young person to be exploited, but that does not detract from the fact that employers need positive support and encouragement to be offered through the leadership of this House and its Members. It is, therefore, incumbent on Members of Her Majesty’s Government and Opposition to do all they can to encourage employers to offer work experience, and to fight against the small minority of people who seem intent on putting their ideology before the needs of the most vulnerable people in society who need a little extra help to get on the work ladder and into a job.

I will conclude by saying that we must move this debate away from the discussions of the past couple of weeks and towards the political centre ground and a sensible viewpoint that is shared by most people in this country. Most people are supportive of this policy, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how the Government intend to support it and ensure robustly that we do not give in to that small minority. I also look to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to back the policy to the hilt and do the right thing for young people in our country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this debate, although despite his claims that he would not be ideological, I think that he was ideological throughout.

Last Friday, I met a young man in a local community café that is run entirely by volunteers and opens for two hours a week. It is quite new, but it has been very successful. The young man started to volunteer in that café through an arrangement with his school, as he was soon to be a school leaver and had some learning difficulties. He has since left school, although he has continued to volunteer. He told me that as a result of that volunteering experience, Debenhams had offered him the opportunity for paid work in its city café for four hours a day. I thought that that was a great story and a wonderful example of what work experience can do.

When I served on Edinburgh council, we started a scheme called JET—jobs, education and training—first in one high school, although it was subsequently rolled out to others. It was for a cohort of pupils who were in their final year at school but who were likely to emerge with very little to show for it, probably because they hardly ever attended. The pupils and their families were approached and asked to sign up for the scheme. They had a reduced school timetable; they spent one day a week doing work experience and one day a week at a college doing training that was related to that work experience. There were about 20 of those pupils in each school, and although I cannot say that they all came out with jobs at the end of the scheme—we discovered that a lot of them had deep-rooted personal problems—it was a good programme that involved a period of work experience and, importantly, was related to training.

I therefore refute absolutely the allegations that Labour Members are somehow against work experience or even—this is the allegation repeated by the hon. Member for Nuneaton—that we are content to leave people stuck in unemployment. That is totally wrong.

Will the hon. Lady say whether she supports the Government’s work experience programme that I spent about 20 minutes outlining?

I was about to come on to that, but I wanted to establish the importance of correctly managed work experience.

What is wrong with the current scheme? To me, the most important thing is that work experience moves people away from their current situation and towards employability, whether or not that involves a job right away. As Ministers and others have said, it is essential to get people away from lying in bed or watching daytime TV—anyone who has been the parent of a teenager, particularly a teenage boy, will say amen to that. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

The first, but by no means that last, example of the scheme was related to me by a constituent. She was still quite young and had worked in the past. She had qualifications and had done holiday jobs, but she had then become unemployed. Her complaint was that she was expected to do eight-weeks’ work experience—the shelf stacking that everybody goes on about—and wondered how that related to moving her to where she wanted to be or make her more employable. I do not think that that is being a job snob. We are mixing up two things.

May I ask the hon. Lady a personal question? My first job was baking bread in a bakery at the age of 14. What was the hon. Lady’s first work experience?

My first work experience, which was paid, was washing dishes in a department store in Coventry. We have all had such jobs. The point that I am trying to make is that, in the case to which I referred, it was not the young woman’s first job experience. She was not someone who had never worked and needed to get from that situation to another. Of course most of us have experience of different types of temporary work.

The hon. Lady just said that the lady she was referring to was forced into work experience. It is a voluntary programme. Frankly, if the lady is doing work experience, it might involve another skill that she can learn, but it is voluntary; she cannot have been compelled to do it.

I shall explain the issue as far as this young woman was concerned, and I think that this is where it comes down to conditionality. She was certainly put under, as she explained it, considerable pressure—as part of a general conditionality point—to do the work experience or her benefits would be put at risk. That was how she perceived it.

Is not part of the problem that, as the Minister has repeatedly said, and as others have said today, this is a voluntary scheme, but jobcentres sent out letters telling people that they would lose their benefit if they did not join the scheme? There is, at the very least, huge confusion in Jobcentre Plus about what the terms of this arrangement are.

That is the kind of information that I have been getting from constituents. I am referring to the rules on conditionality and the advice or information that they were getting from the local jobcentre. This point is different from the point about whether people are sanctioned when they leave the scheme; it is about the conditionality regime.

In the specific circumstances that the hon. Lady outlines, what advice does she give her constituents when they come to her with that issue?

My advice to people in that situation—the young woman to whom I was referring had already completed the period of work experience—would be to question the relevance or appropriateness of the work experience to their situation. The young lady to whom I was referring did not need to learn those skills; she already had them. A different question might arise if we want to say about someone, “Should they apply for a job of that nature?” That young woman would have been qualified for any vacancy that came up of that nature. Some hon. Members present would no doubt say that she should simply apply for such a job, but anyone who has gone for such jobs when they are in that situation will find that they are likely to be turned down as over-qualified, or employers might think that they would leave quite quickly. It is a different question from whether work experience of that type is useful. They are two completely separate issues.

Surely, doing the work experience would both display a can-do attitude and place the lady in the shop window for the organisation, which could ultimately lead to a permanent role.

I am not convinced, from the young woman’s description of her experience, that she was in the shop window of anything. I should like to quote the chief executive of the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. His view is not that there should be no work experience, but that there should be

“a good ‘match’ between the nature of the work experience and the young person”.

He gives an example. He says that

“for someone with a law degree doing work experience at a legal firm would be a much better match than, say, the night shift at a pound shop. We have learned time and again that the better the match,”

the better the prospect of someone getting employment.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again and being so generous with her time. This scheme is voluntary and the work experience that people do is based on an area and an industry in which they are interested. The hon. Lady is a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, but I suggest that she look at what her constituent has brought her, because she may be getting confused—mixed-up—between the work experience scheme and other schemes such as the mandatory work scheme, the skills and training schemes and even the Work programme. It seems as though she is talking about a totally different scheme, which is part of the problem that the Socialist Workers party has had in purposely trying to confuse the situation.

I accept that there is a plethora of schemes and some confusion—the media have been confused—but I am absolutely certain that the mandatory work experience scheme was not involved in this example. It is not good enough to have the view that when people make the point about relevant work experience—relevant to people’s existing experience and skills—they should simply be condemned as snooty job snobs and people who are not willing to work. That is not the case.

Does the hon. Lady not agree that relevant skills would include presentation, punctuality, communication and being able to get on with one’s co-workers?

Absolutely, but we must ensure that these schemes build on the experience and skills that people already have. Of course, some people have not worked for a very long time. Some young people have never held down a job. For them, some basic experiences will enable them to grow, develop and mature.

I come from a town with 14% unemployment; indeed, it has a history of unemployment over the past two or three decades. Most people will make any sacrifice, in any way, shape or form, for the promise of a job. The problem at the moment is not necessarily this policy in its totality; I think that it is well meaning, although perhaps it has a few kinks in it. The problem is the change to tax credits. There may be no promise of a job at the end, or particularly in retail, there may be a job that is part time and for fewer than 24 hours a week. Some people might therefore see such work experience as valueless, because the job at the end might not pay as much as they would receive on the dole.

My hon. Friend is correct. Someone spoke previously about an elephant in the room. The job at the end is probably the biggest elephant in the room. It is not good enough to say that the whole problem is about people not having skills or training and that, somehow, if we list all the schemes, work programmes and other programmes, we have solved the unemployment problem. There are two sides to the unemployment problem. There is the problem of the lack of jobs, which is very considerable in some areas of the country, and, yes, there are issues about whether people have the proper skills and experience to take up opportunities. We need both. To say constantly that we are on top of this because we have programme X, Y, Z and goodness knows what else will not solve the problem of the lack of jobs.

One big issue that we face is that we do not know a lot about the outcomes of the scheme. We are told that it is a wonderful scheme and is having great results. Will the Minister tell us when he will give us more detailed information about what is actually happening? Ministers and Back Benchers constantly recite the fact that half of those doing work experience are in jobs within a short time. That is based on an initial pilot involving some 1,300 people between January and March 2011. The more accurate statement—I accept that the Minister usually gives the more accurate statement, although others do not—is that one half or 51%, to be exact, were off benefits 13 weeks after the work experience period. They may have come off benefits and gone into a job or to college, or simply not have been claiming. For example, someone who has got to the end of their six months on jobseeker’s allowance and who has a working partner may simply stop claiming.

Will the hon. Lady confirm that the benchmark that we use to judge the success of the work experience programme is exactly the same benchmark that she and her colleagues used to judge what they claimed to be the success—it was at a much higher cost—of the future jobs fund?

I am not going to dispute—[Interruption.] It is important to know a bit more about what has been happening. All these assertions are made on the basis of a fairly small number. If the Minister has other information to give us, that is all well and good, but we are not hearing that at the moment. I asked him in a written question how many of those who had taken part in the scheme, either between 16 and 18 years of age or between 18 and 25, had found employment with the firm with which they had done the work experience or with another employer. The answer was that the Department does not hold that information. The Government are not tracking that information. I find that worrying, because assertions and statements are being made about the success of a programme, but answers to the detailed questions that anyone might reasonably want to ask about these programmes are simply not being given to us.

May I give my hon. Friend an example? The Government are changing the point at which an employee’s rights kick in and they become a full employee with full rights to 24 months. What is there to say that a young person who has got work experience through this scheme and gets a job will not find that the workplace is subject to a short-time-working agreement and that they are probably first in line for a LIFO—last in, first out—scheme, unofficially, by that employer, because their employment rights do not kick in for another 12 months?

The situation might be even worse than that. At Treasury questions last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), who is not here today, raised the case of two young people who had been given a job at the end of a work experience scheme, but who were paid off within two weeks, which is not particularly satisfactory. If we are not tracking outcomes properly, we should be. If we are to judge the validity of schemes, we need the data.

Is the hon. Lady aware that 51% of the first 1,300 people who took part in the scheme were off benefits after 13 weeks?

That is precisely what I said—that 51% of the first 1,300 people who took part in the scheme between January and March 2011 were off benefits. That was the point where I came in.

We have to look not only at the quality of work experience, but at the fact that some firms may simply be using schemes to get people to do jobs they would otherwise have employed someone to do.

On a slightly different matter—this does not relate to the work experience scheme pure and simple—I was astonished to read in no less a paper than The Sunday Times, which is hardly a friend of the left, that McDonald’s had, it seemed to me, reframed its trainee posts as apprenticeships. It was taking Government money to train people in the skills they would need if they got a job at McDonald’s, such as customer service and food hygiene. Many people, including students and others, have gone through the McDonald’s scheme over many years and they have gone on to work in McDonald’s. However, people on the scheme are now being designated as apprentices, and I know of one case in which somebody doing a Saturday job got a contract as an apprentice. McDonald’s got the money from the Government and was quoted as saying that no additional jobs had been created.

Is the hon. Lady aware that she is describing the previous Labour Government’s policy of allowing companies that developed in-work training places to designate them as apprenticeships? Does she accept that what she is describing originated under the Labour Government and has been deemed—by that Government and this one—to be an important part of the career development mix?

Even if the Minister tells me that that is the case, I would not necessarily always accept everything previous Governments have done, because such provisions are not helping us in any respect to create additional jobs. The worry about firms taking successive people to do work experience without payment is that they may be reducing their other employees’ opportunities to do paid work—through additional hours, for example. We need reassurance that that is not happening, and if we do not get it, we will have some queries.

When I looked into the success of the future jobs fund, there was much trumpeting of 50% placements and costs per placement being reasonable. However, the cost per placement was about £3,000 to £5,000, while the figure under the work experience scheme is £200 to £300. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it was somewhat perverse for 80% of the placements under the future jobs fund to be in the public sector? Looking around the piece, that would hardly save the Government money in the long run.

My understanding regarding those public sector jobs is that there was, in part, a difficulty over whether the measures would constitute state aid if they were carried out in some other way. It is regrettable if that became an obstacle, because the future jobs fund was a good model and gave people good-quality work experience. I hope that the Government will consider returning to it in the future.

It is not my position or that of any Opposition Member that work experience is simply not to be done. However, we want people to have work experience that genuinely improves their employability; if it does not, it has to be questioned.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate.

It is important to start off with why we are here. The scheme, which has worked successfully, has been in place since January last year, and it is only in the past few weeks that it has gained any publicity. It has been working very nicely, the companies involved in it have been taking people on and more than 34,000 people have been through it. That tells us that something has happened in just the past few weeks to bring it to public attention.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that some of us did, in fact, raise questions considerably longer ago than the past few weeks, but we were put down with exactly the same suggestions that we were being over-fussy and supporting people who thought they were too good to work.

I thank the hon. Lady for outlining that she supports the Socialist Workers party position on this. The reality is that the publicity came about a few weeks ago, when the Socialist Workers party started a campaign, having placed an advert that was wrong.

Would my hon. Friend not pass on to the hon. Lady the advice that when one is in a hole, one should stop digging?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. He has probably said everything that needs to be said.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have debated this issue a few times with people from Right to Work and various other groups that are backed or supported by the Socialist Workers party. What has been particularly noticeable, however, is that there has, until very recently, been a lack of Labour Members debating it. It was therefore somewhat surprising, if not frustrating, that when Labour Members started agreeing to come out during the last couple of days of the real media coverage, they quite openly said that they supported the scheme’s principle—I hope the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), will do so again today—but then complained that the problem was miscommunication.

The miscommunication has come about, however, purely because the Socialist Workers party and its representative protest groups have purposely confused things in every single debate. Before one debate I took part in, a member of the Socialist Workers party was chatting quite happily outside the studio. He understood exactly what the different programmes were and how they worked. When we went in to debate them, however, he straight away confused the mandatory Work programme with work experience—he knew exactly what he was doing. It is a real shame that Labour Members did not come out with us, even if they do disagree with the programme, to clarify that work experience is a straightforward and simple voluntary programme that gives people experience in an industry or field they have expressed an interest in going into.

We should remember to congratulate the companies involved in the scheme, and it is great that hundreds more are joining, thanks to the publicity it has had—we should possibly thank the Socialist Workers party for giving it that extra coverage. Those companies should be congratulated for doing young people a service by providing opportunities and experience of a range of issues. They are providing not just the skill sets that people want, whether that is in engineering, technology, retail or any other industry, but the interpersonal skills that Members mentioned and the skills that come with simply understanding what it means to get up and go to work. Last week, The Sunday Telegraph carried a story about people on the work experience programme of a company in Kent. Those people said how much higher their self-esteem was as a result of getting up in the morning and having a project, and most of them were going on to full-time jobs with the company.

We must, however, be careful. The real shame is that if we do not make it clear what a good scheme this is, organisations such as charities that run work experience schemes could lose the benefit of them. Through the Prince’s Trust, I have had people work in my office for a couple of weeks. They have been excellent people, and they have used that experience on their CVs and gone on to really productive ways of life, which was perhaps not the case before. A range of charities could be threatened if we are not careful.

The most important people in all this, however, are the young people who take part in the scheme. They have voluntarily said they want to do something with their lives; they want to think out of the box and take a different path. As we have heard, many of us, and many people who work in the media, have had work experience. I was fortunate enough to do so when I was young because my father happened to know somebody who offered me work experience, and that led to other opportunities. Other young people do not necessarily have those connections and opportunities. It is right and courageous of the Government to put the scheme forward, to give a chance to people who may not have those contacts. That is hugely important.

We have all perhaps worked in jobs that we have seen as only the first step. My first paid job was in a warehouse. I did not particularly want to spend my life working in a warehouse. I wanted to be a buyer, and move on from there, but to get into a particular company I needed to take a job in the warehouse. It was step one on the ladder. We must encourage the 34,000-plus young people who have done the work experience programme to feel that they have done a good thing. They have shown motivation, and are inspired to go and do something different—to take a step on to the first rung of the ladder, and not to expect to jump on to rungs four, five or six, which too often is the case these days. We should really congratulate the young people who have had the motivation to get involved with the scheme, as much as the companies that give them the opportunity. It is a good scheme and we should support it.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth, despite the fact that I have an awful cold. I hope to get through my speech without coughing too much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing the debate. I asked for a debate on the same matter in business questions recently. It is important to use this opportunity to clarify the terminology, which I shall do in the form of a media guide, as it were. I hope the Minister will confirm my understanding of the categories. The three that get most confused are Work Experience programme, the Work programme and workfare.

My experience of the media confusion came when, like my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is a colleague on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I was invited on to “Newsnight”. The producer said to me, “We are going to have one young person with a good experience of work experience, and one with a bad experience, and we would like you to come and debate it.” I thought it seemed sensible, but when I turned up there were three people, one of whom was a young person who had had a positive experience of work experience. However, there was also a 48-year-old gentleman who was clearly either in some form of the Work programme, or had some other experience, and a 40-year-old gentleman. It did not help—I do not know whether it was deliberate or accidental—that the producer had accumulated three people with experience of different aspects of back-to-work activity.

It would be helpful to use the debate to clarify the fact, which does not seem to have got through loud and clear to certain segments of the media, that the Work Experience programme is a voluntary one for people under 24. It changes the unfortunate situation that existed under the previous rules. We have heard that the BBC, ITV and The Guardian offer work experience, often in four-week tranches. Under the previous rules, a young person looking for work who was fortunate enough to be offered work experience by one of those organisations would have to give up jobseeker’s allowance for taking work experience that lasted longer than two weeks. That is profoundly unfair, because we all know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth said, that many perhaps more middle-class families can afford to subsidise their young person under the age of 24 to take that kind of work experience. It is extremely progressive that the Government have changed the rules, so that now a young person whose family relies on their jobseeker’s allowance can take the work experience opportunities that have been largely the preserve of sharp-elbowed middle-class people.

The Work programme is completely different. It is not age-dependent. The Government put out contracts, which became live last June. The Work and Pensions Committee is looking forward to hearing from the Minister next Monday some of the early indications of the results of the contracts. Obviously, there is regional variation in providers and who won the contracts. The important thing about the Work programme is that, rather than being prescriptive about the contracts, the Government have for the first time created a black box: the providers can do what they find works to get people back into work. It is a completely different kettle of fish from voluntary work experience for young people. Yes, participation in the Work programme comes about when someone has either spent a period on incapacity benefit or been out of work on jobseeker’s allowance for an extended time, and those activities do tend to be mandatory in many cases. That is the second thing that gets confused when it is brought into the picture.

I would like to ask the Minister for clarification about workfare. My understanding is that the Department’s use of workfare—having to work while on benefits—is quite limited, particularly where it is mandatory. However, it is a tool that jobcentre advisers have in their armoury. If they suspect, for example, that someone is working and claiming benefits, they can use workfare to identify those situations. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether that is the correct way to define workfare.

I think that there has been media confusion. I hope that in my speech I have created a helpful media guide for any producers out there who may be doing programmes on the subject, and I look forward to clarification of the definitions from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing this important debate, on behalf of the striving majority for whom work experience is a great opportunity, for themselves or their children—something to be celebrated and encouraged.

I want to broaden the debate slightly to talk about work experience before children leave school, but before I do that I want to talk about the Government programme that has caused some controversy: what it is, what it does, and for whom. From an employer’s point of view it is a fantastic extended job interview, and an opportunity to see someone in action. Anyone who has ever taken anyone on will know that giving someone a job is always a risk. The more it is possible to see the person in action, the more the risk is mitigated. An employer will get some productive work out of a short-term work experience placement, but, to be honest, it is not nearly as much as some media commentators have suggested. I suggest that, for employers, taking part in the programmes is far more to do with investing in the future and the next generation.

For the individual, the key advantage of work experience is proving oneself—first to the employer directly concerned, bearing in mind the possibility of a job at the end; but, perhaps more importantly, to any employer, by demonstrating recent work experience, involving turning up on time and undergoing the discipline involved. Along the way, of course, people develop skills, and experience a business or occupation that may interest them. But most of all work experience is an in. It is an opportunity that people might not otherwise get. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) said that people who apply for jobs in retail know how hard it is to get them. Well, yes: one reason is that without recent work experience people are far less likely to be considered. Other things being equal, at the same rate of pay, the risk is lower and the odds of success are far higher if an employer employs someone who is already in a job or who has just left one, than if they take a punt, as they might see it, on someone who has been out of work for some time. I suggest that anyone who thinks that great employers—great firms with consumer brands of huge value—are in the programme just to get cheap labour, has never held a supervisory position in a consumer-facing branded organisation.

The Government Work Experience programme has generated controversy. I have had e-mails from bemused constituents about both the opposition and Her Majesty’s Opposition: the deafening silence from the Leader of the Opposition has done no credit to the great Labour movement, the party of work.

We have yet to hear from the Government Benches about how this policy rebalances the economy and how work experience can be used in manufacturing. We hear about employers in the retail sector, but I am interested to hear whether manufacturers have taken on people in this work experience role and whether, if there have been long periods of such experience, greater numbers of people in the north-east have been employed in manufacturing in the traditional sense.

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I shall leave it hanging, so that the Minister can pluck it at the appropriate moment. All I would say is that the service industry is an enormous part of the economy. We all want to see growth in manufacturing, but services are a huge part of the economy in many of our constituencies. Getting work experience in that area is absolutely valuable in its own right.

The bemused e-mails that I have been receiving from my constituents say something along these lines: “I understand that the programme is voluntary. There are some advantages to the individual in taking part, but if, after a period of time—not on the first day but after a week or so—they just cease to turn up to work for no good reasons, there are adverse consequences.” It is called a work experience programme—I do not know about you, Mr Crausby, but that sounds an awful lot like an experience of work. I pay tribute to the firms that have taken part in the programme, particularly those that have stood firm and not given in. However, I also understand the nervousness of some of the firms that have issued statements expressing concerns.

We all welcome the new media campaigns with which we are pleased to communicate on a regular basis. As politicians, we also know that they are not always all that they purport to be. I am probably unusual on the Conservative Benches in being a Guardian reader. Perhaps I was the only Member present who was a little bemused, or amused, to read the helpful clarification in The Guardian that this right to work campaign was not run by a bunch of lefties because it contained not only the Socialist Workers party, but members of UK Uncut and the Occupy protest movement. I understand the nervousness of firms with quarterly results to deliver and daily revenues to monitor. We need a debate about how some of these campaigning organisations work and about their proper role in society.

I can say from my long political experience that if views that might be deemed extremist do not strike a chord with the public, they will simply sink. If some of the criticisms of this initiative, which have been raised in this House previously, had had no resonance with the public—

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. All credit to those organisations for creating a splash over the issue. However, I am afraid that they have done it by misleading the public and saying that young people are being forced into slave labour when that is absolutely not the case. This relates to what I was saying about the Opposition—I do not include the small number of Labour Members who have come here today. When their leader had an opportunity to debunk that theory and to put the record straight, he failed to do so. It was a great shame that we did not hear such a view from Labour, the party of work.

I know that we are short of time, but I should like to broaden my contribution to include work experience at school. Whenever employers give evidence on the Education Committee, on which I sit, they predictably complain about qualifications not doing what they say on the tin and about young people not being work ready. Work readiness is sometimes called employability skills, soft skills or, when the terminological obfuscation gets extreme, transferable non-cognitive skills. Essentially, what it means is all the stuff about dealing with other people—turning up to work on time, knowing the right way to dress, empathy with the customer, smiling and pride in a job well done. All those things can be partly developed through work experience. When we ask employers if the situation is getting worse, they often say that it is. We cannot demonstrate that it is getting worse. It may be just not getting better, but we are in the business of economic growth. To achieve economic growth, we need such things to be improving year on year.

We need a debate about the role and quality of work experience in schools. It may be that the two-week block in years 10 or 11 is an important part of that, but it does not seem to be doing the full job. With the rise in the participation age, I wonder whether moving the bulk of work experience into the sixth form might be more appropriate. It may well be that there is a role for both. I also hope that we can consider other ways of augmenting and bolstering that work experience. Perhaps we can have a more formal assessment of that young person’s performance in work experience that can count towards their future job prospects.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I suggest that we bring in that introduction to work experience at the options stage, when children at 14 and 15 are choosing their options for GCSEs, which usually indicate what career they might be going into.

I absolutely see that point. That is why I said that there could be a role for both. Even at the options stage, there is only an opportunity to see one employer, so it will not give a full range of career choices. We certainly need more firms to step up to the plate for school-age work experience. There are many myths about health and safety compliance and Criminal Records Bureau checks and so on. I hope the Government will turn their attention to encouraging more and more quality employers to get on board with that programme and offer more opportunities to young people.

There is a particular area in which school-age work experience can deliver huge benefits to our country. I am talking about work in the public sector, particularly in teaching. The Education Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into what makes a great teacher. One of the recurring themes is that everybody knows what a great teacher is because they have had one. They know it when they see it, but it is very difficult to predict in advance who is going to make a great teacher unless they are seen teaching. I hope we can encourage young people who are interested in teaching, particularly from the sixth form, to do teaching placements of one or two weeks in a school. By working alongside a QTS teacher, they will be able to develop their skills and decide whether teaching is right for them. Furthermore, qualified teachers will be able to assess whether they are well suited to the job.

Just this morning, I visited the charity City Year, which enables young people to volunteer for one year to work, unpaid, in local schools—Hackney schools in this particular instance. Some 86% of students who volunteer get a job after, largely as teachers.

That is a fascinating scheme. I am not familiar with it, but I will certainly look it up. As it transpires, that was the end of my remarks, so I will stop.

I want to call the two Front-Benchers at 12.10 pm, so I would appreciate a very short contribution from Graham Evans.

I will crack on with my very short contribution. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this very interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing it. He is a hard-working advocate for his constituents and deserves considerable credit for his work. Like his good self, I have a young family, so we both have a vested interest in this topic. I know first hand the importance of experiencing the world of work. I grew up on a council estate in Poynton and left my local state school with few qualifications. My first job was stacking shelves in the local Co-op. I went on to get a job working on nimrods at BAE Systems at Woodford. I was able to study at night school and build a successful career in manufacturing. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) talked about opportunities in manufacturing. Under Labour, between 1997 and 2010, the number of people employed in manufacturing halved. In 1997, manufacturing’s contribution to GDP was 22%. In 2010, it was 12%.

It is a great honour to represent the people of Weaver Vale. That would not have been possible if I had not been able to get my first experience of work. We all know how vital work experience is for young people. The previous Labour Government acknowledged that and used it as part of their new deal. The evidence is even clearer now. Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions tell us that 50% of all participants on work experience schemes move off benefits within three months. Obviously, work experience schemes can be a key weapon in the fight against youth unemployment, but why is that fight so important?

As I have said in recent debates on apprenticeships, there is a significant correlation between the eastern expansion of the European Union and the increase in youth unemployment from 2004 onwards. Despite repeated warnings from the Conservative Opposition at that time, the Labour Government decided against having transitional immigration controls. The impact on youth unemployment has been dramatic.

If someone wants to understand why youth unemployment has become such a problem, they should put themselves in the shoes of a prospective employer. Are prospective employers going to pick a school leaver with zero work experience or training ahead of a 30-something migrant who has extensive work experience? Would they take on the risk, costs and effort to train young people who are lacking any sort of work experience, and who therefore have no way of demonstrating that they are reliable, instead of older migrants who are already trained and have a CV demonstrating a strong work ethic? So it is screamingly obvious why work experience schemes can help to tackle youth unemployment, and I am delighted that the Government recognise that and are spending £1 billion on the youth contract to create incentives for employers to create an extra 250,000 work experience places during the next three years.

Given some of the utter nonsense that has been spouted in recent weeks about these work experience schemes, it is important to remember that they are voluntary. Furthermore, people have an opportunity to try out the scheme first before giving a commitment. In addition, it is absolutely ridiculous to assert that businesses are exploiting young people and getting free labour. There are significant costs for businesses that are taking part: to arrange the placements, to train the people, to mentor them and to provide equipment and uniforms. Businesses that take part should be applauded, not attacked. So all Members should get behind the Work Experience scheme and the Government’s—

I will finish quickly. A record 440,000 apprenticeships have been created this year alone. There has been £150 million of capital spending to support improved technical and vocational education. There are ambitions for at least 24 new colleges by 2014 and, of course, there are the fantastic education reforms. The future competiveness of our economy depends on these initiatives.

I am grateful to you, Mr Crausby, for giving me this opportunity to speak. I also thank the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has done us a great service by securing a debate on this very important topic.

The Government have got themselves into an extraordinary muddle over work experience. Labour supports work experience. It can be invaluable in reconnecting people with the labour market; it has been a part of labour market intervention since the 1970s; and it was a key feature of the success of the new deal. Unfortunately, however, the Government have got themselves into a terrible mess.

On 29 February, the Minister—in an attempt to extricate himself from that mess—announced a U-turn and that the “Work Experience” scheme was to be fully voluntary. Previously, he had said that it was a voluntary scheme; I suppose that his announcement on 29 February means that it really will be voluntary. However, his problem is that the letters that Jobcentre Plus staff sent out to claimants said something quite different. He was memorably confronted on “Channel 4 News” with a letter that had been sent out to somebody who was being told about a placement on a “Work Experience” scheme; the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) quite rightly said that there are other schemes, but in this case the placement was part of a “Work Experience” scheme. The letter said:

“You have been referred to the following Opportunity: retail assistant…If you cannot attend for any reason or if you stop claiming Jobseekers Allowance please contact this Jobcentre immediately. If without a good reason you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going...any future payments of Jobseekers Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate.”

There is no point in claiming that the scheme is voluntary if Jobcentre Plus staff—staff in the Minister’s job centres—are telling people precisely the opposite.

Has it crossed the right hon. Gentleman’s mind that nobody would receive a letter unless they had volunteered?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what I suspect is the source of the confusion. It arises from the decision maker’s guide, which any Member of the House can read on the website for the Department for Work and Pensions. That guide says:

“JSA may not be payable or it may be payable at a reduced rate to claimants who are entitled to JSA and have...after being notified by an Employment Officer of a place on a Work Experience scheme, refused without good cause or failed to apply for it or to accept it when offered, or...neglected to avail themselves of a reasonable opportunity of a place on Work Experience.”

A Jobcentre Plus adviser who is doing their job and looking at the official guidance discovers that that is what the guidance is—a clear description of a mandatory scheme.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Jobcentre Plus staff have been so confused and have contradicted what the Minister has said. Of course, as we know, a number of businesses also lost confidence in the scheme. But the muddle goes even further, because the DWP’s provider guidance for the Work programme says:

“Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience, you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated”.

The DWP was saying that until a few weeks ago, but that particular statement has now been deleted from the guidance on the website.

Therefore I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, now that there are no sanctions in work experience other than for gross misconduct, will he amend the decision maker’s guide? Secondly, how will he ensure that the policy is now implemented in line with what he has announced? Thirdly, what has changed in the legal position so that work experience no longer has to be mandated to “avoid”—to quote the guidance that was on his Department’s website—the national minimum wage rules?

The Work Experience scheme is too valuable to let this muddle continue. And as we have already heard in the debate, there are other schemes apart from the “Work Experience” scheme. In fact, Inclusion says that there are seven different current work experience schemes, which may be part of the reason for the muddle. At the time that some claimants are starting on the “Work Experience” scheme, others start on mandatory work activity, which was the scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth. That may well be another source of the confusion. As the name of the mandatory work activity scheme suggests, it is not voluntary. It is designed for people who are a long way from the labour market and who have no experience of work or the work ethic. Placements are for a similar period to those in the Work Experience scheme, and they are sourced through private welfare-to-work providers. The total value of the contracts for mandatory work activity is £32 million. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to tell the House what the average cost of such a placement is, and various other details. He has repeatedly refused to answer those questions, claiming that it is “Commercial in Confidence” although heaven knows why.

The right hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about “confusion”, but from where I sit in Westminster Hall today I am extremely confused about the position of his party in relation to the Government’s work experience programme. On the one hand he says that he supports work experience, but on the other he seems to be coming up with all sorts of “confusion” in his argument to try to get away from supporting that programme. Does his party support the current Government’s work experience programme and will he commit to supporting those employers that are doing a fantastic job in giving our young people this type of opportunity?

I very strongly support work experience and I strongly support the contribution of employers. However, what I regret and deprecate is the extraordinary muddle and confusion that the Government’s handling of the Work Experience scheme and the six other similar schemes has created.

On mandatory—[Interruption.] Time is running out and I want to give the Minister every chance to respond to these points, so let me just tell the House about one of my constituents. She was put on to mandatory work activity. She was not a long way from the labour market; indeed, after I inquired about her, she received a phone call to say that she should never have been put on mandatory work activity in the first place. The letter that was sent to her initially was a classic of incomprehensibility; I sent a copy of it to the Minister. It instructed her, a resident of east London, to go to an obscure Sheffield postcode, and it said that if she had any queries she should ring telephone number 000. Her placement was at a charity shop. When she arrived, there were 14 other people on mandatory work activity who had also been sent to the same charity shop to help out. There was nowhere near enough work to go round, although presumably all 15 of those people attracted a payment to the provider from the Minister’s Department.

Experiences such as that will not help anybody into work. I ask the Minister: what checks is he making on placements to mandatory work activity? In fact, does he know if his Department is being ripped off on a large scale, as the example that I just gave suggests? Also, why does he insist on secrecy about all of this, when the openness that is being promoted by the Cabinet Office would help to resolve all these problems? This Minister has some form on this. He has been officially rebuked for misusing statistics—I think more than any other Member of the House—including on three separate occasions since he has been a Minister. That is a pretty extraordinary record.

On a point of order, Mr Crausby. Is it in order to make allegations about another Member without giving details? I am certainly not aware of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised. He has made quite a serious comment about another Member. I have no knowledge of any such occasions since I have become a Minister.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the three occasions are all on the UK Statistics Authority’s website: first, data relating to the flexible new deal; secondly, data relating to worklessness statistics; and thirdly, data about benefit claims on the part of immigrants. The first and third of those were widely publicised at the time. I have the letter on the second in front of me. The Minister publishes statistics that he thinks advance his partisan case, but he refuses to publish straightforward, routine data that certainly should be in the public domain.

Further to that point of order, Mr Crausby. Since becoming a Minister I have not received, to the best of my knowledge, any communication from the UK Statistics Authority questioning any statistics that I have published. I want to place that on the record and ask whether it is in order for a shadow Minister to make an allegation of that kind.

I will gladly copy the letter from the UK Statistics Authority website for the Minister.

Work experience should have been straightforward and uncontroversial. It is valuable and we need more of it. Instead, we have had U-turns, public relations fiascos and even street protests. The Minister needs to clear up the confusion at Jobcentre Plus, level with us about mandatory work activity and embrace at last the open data initiative that was conceived by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General so that everybody can judge for themselves the effectiveness of the schemes.

We have just heard a clear example of why the Opposition have yet to adapt to opposition. In long years of opposition, we learned that there are times when one should simply accept that what the Government are doing is right. I am sorry to hear the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), for whom I normally have a high regard, misrepresenting the situation around any letters or communications that the Department has received from the UK Statistics Authority. I am also sorry that he is dancing on a sixpence to try to oppose something that he should support.

Mr Crausby, if you had told me three months ago that we would be dealing with protests against the work experience scheme, given all the difficult decisions that we are taking in the Department for Work and Pensions, I would have thought you were mad. Among all those difficult decisions, this is a positive programme that is designed to help. It is innocuous. It does what it says on the tin. It started as a result of a complaint that I personally received from the mother of a young woman who said, “My daughter has arranged a month’s work experience for herself and been told she will lose her benefits if she carries out that experience.” I regarded that as unacceptable, so we started to use the teams of people we have in Jobcentre Plus to look for opportunities for young people to do work experience, precisely because of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). It is all well and good if someone comes from a prosperous background, but not everyone does. Helping young people find work experience opportunities is enormously important.

I will deal straight away with the issue raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). I am afraid she needs to look in the mirror and ask the question about being a job snob. The row came about because of a computer error, which published an internal bulletin about a work experience placement at Tesco. Had it been Airbus, this would never have been a story, and the hon. Lady would not be complaining today. I commend Airbus for joining our scheme, along with many other manufacturers.

About 12 months ago, I met an older, former unemployed worker at an Asda store in Birmingham. He said: “I came here after years of unemployment. I got a job at the bottom level of the scale. A few months later, I was running a department with a staff of 20.” The job of running a high street retail branch—a big supermarket—can be a job that oversees a large staff in a business turning over tens of millions of pounds a year. In a large company such as Tesco, there are a vast range of opportunities in IT, HR, logistics, or community outreach. There was magnificent community work at Asda in my own constituency. There are all kinds of opportunities for someone to go in at the bottom and work their way up.

Let me explain to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East how the scheme works. Our advisers sit down with young people and talk about different career options. They ask them about the sectors that interest them, and find them—if we can—a placement in one of their preferred sectors. It is their choice. We listen to them and try to find the opportunity. Unfortunately, we cannot find opportunities for all the young people, because the scheme is over-subscribed. That is the nature of what we are trying to do. We expect them to turn up, if they have taken a placement from someone else; we expect them to fulfil the placement if they stay beyond the first week’s grace; and we expect them to behave themselves. It is the lightest-touch conditionality anywhere in the welfare system. We have listened to the employers—given all the brouhaha—and accepted that we would remove the attendance requirement. We still have sanctions in place for things such as racism in the workplace, theft in the workplace and abusive behaviour towards customers or fellow co-workers. Only about 200 out of 34,000 participants have been sanctioned.

The scheme was and will continue to be a voluntary scheme that is positive and beneficial. Some of the coverage—particularly the BBC’s—and wilful attempts to mislead were disgraceful. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is absolutely right. The way in which this was covered was nothing short of disgraceful. The scheme is aimed at the under-24s. Putting people in their 40s on the TV was nonsensical and extremely poor-quality journalism. However, a small number of older people do get work experience placements: for example, long-term carers and people who have been out of the workplace for long periods for whom such experience is beneficial.

The right hon. Member for East Ham raised a variety of questions about letters and so forth. Of course, someone does not get a letter about the scheme unless they have volunteered to be on it. It is as simple and straightforward as that. I will tell the House a simple story, which was fed back to me by one of our Jobcentre Plus teams a couple of weeks ago. They were briefing a group of young people about the work experience scheme and opportunities. One of them—a young woman—said, “I don’t wanna do that. It’s slave labour.” Our staff said that they did not have to do or say anything at all, because the rest of the group turned on her and told her in no uncertain terms how important the opportunity was to them and how important it was that they all took part. By the time they had finished discussing it as a group, she was going to take part, too. There was no mandation from us, but mandation from her peers.

The scheme is positive. It is not about retailing. The tragic aspect to the debate is the absurd discussion about whether we should be helping young people get work experience places—of course we should. There should be no doubt about that. We are still not hearing, especially from the right hon. Member for East Ham, “This is a good scheme that we will back publicly. It is the right thing to do. We will continue it if we get back into Government.” All we hear is cavilling about this and that detail. Let us stand up and say, “We have a problem with youth unemployment. We need to do something about it. We will do something. We will all work together.” Every single one of us in this House, whether it is the right hon. Gentleman, me or any other Member here, could do a power of good for this scheme, Mr Crausby. Indeed, you could yourself, sir, in your constituency. We can talk to local employers and say, “Get involved.” This is a real way to help young people. It makes a difference. It is great. They go on into employment and many of them look back and say that it is the best thing that ever happened to them.

We do have mandatory programmes. The mandatory work activity programme gives our Jobcentre Plus advisers the discretion to refer someone whom they believe is struggling, not pulling their weight or having real difficulty in their work search to a month’s full-time activity. We do not mandate to go and work for private companies—they would not take it even if we did. The same is true of the Work programme. We cannot send people against their wishes to work for a big retailer.

I will not, because I have very little time.

Mandation in our system will apply to community benefit schemes and to nothing else. We are absolutely clear about that. It is the same for the Work programme. The work experience scheme is a good scheme, which must and will continue. It will now grow, because more people are coming forward to help—after all the publicity, ironically. The protesters are plain wrong. They are misguided. It is a tragedy that they are supported by the unions and Labour MPs, but we will not listen to them. We will listen to the young people who say, “This is the best thing that could happen to us.”