On 22nd December, 2014 Mustard Tree was the subject of a peaceful protest demonstration arranged by the campaign group ‘Boycott Workfare ’. Firstly, we acknowledge the politeness and respect shown to us throughout the brief protest outside our Ancoats base by the campaign group; our intention is always to listen, talk and then make a considered and relevant review and response.
The rationale behind the protest
For the past 2 years, we have offered a 4 week work experience placement linked to a part of the government workfare programme termed the ‘Mandatory Work Activity Scheme’. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau gives the following description of this programme:
“The Mandatory Work Activity Scheme is a ‘work for your benefit’ scheme for people claiming jobseeker’s allowance who are aged 18 or over. It’s aimed at people who need extra support to look for jobs and to gain work-related skills. Jobcentre Plus can decide whether you must take part. The scheme is intended to provide work or work-related activity for up to 30 hours a week over a four-week period to help you improve your chances of getting work. To be on the scheme, you have to be available for and actively seeking work, and you have to enter into a jobseeker’s agreement. If you are required to take part in the scheme, but you don’t without a very good reason, you will be sanctioned. This means your Jobseeker’s Allowance will be reduced or stopped for a certain period. However, you may be able to challenge a decision to sanction you”
The Boycott Workfare campaign group assert that, “Workfare forces people to work for free using threat of sanctions (removal of welfare benefits). It’s exploitive and causes poverty and destitution.” The criticism levelled against Mustard Tree is that this part of our activity and our ongoing involvement with Workfare makes us complicit in an exploitive system that is causing harm to those individuals trapped in it.
The facts about Mustard Tree in relation to the protest
- Mustard Tree was founded in 1994, and we have now grown to support over 4,500 people each and every year (in the past 12 months we provided approximately 150 placements to job seekers on the mandatory work activity scheme). The majority of our clients have been impacted by the economic, political and social causes of homelessness and marginalisation.
- Mustard Tree’s core activity is the support of all those that it works with, through the realisation of personal goals that move them away from dependency towards a sustainable and fruitful future. We treat everyone that comes through our doors with kindness and respect, valuing the positive contribution that each person makes to Mustard Tree and to society in general.
- Our experience has been that many of those who join us from this particular scheme are not ready for employment and would fail to secure or hold down a regular job. However, following a short period of meaningful activity, confidence building and the gaining of work related skills and disciplines; many have sufficiently increased their choices and opportunities to move into sustainable employment.
- Workfare forms just one element of our workforce. Our larger flagship programme the Freedom Project (a 20 week life skills and work readiness programme) forms the largest part of our operations and it is an entirely voluntary scheme.
- We have a growing number of people who, on completion of the mandatory 4 week placement, apply to return to Mustard Tree to join our Freedom Project. If you would like to read some of the stories of the stories of those whose progression has then led to sustainable employment, please click here.
- We are convinced that everyone has something valuable and unique to bring to our community and all are encouraged to be a part of the solution. The hard work and dedication of many of the Workfare participants has allowed Mustard Tree the capacity to develop and distribute its resources and services to those most in need. We believe that many of those who have been with us have felt their lives enriched by the opportunities made available to them to be part of the Mustard Tree story. Yes, their journey started by being told that they must attend a period of mandatory work activity, but some will go on to say it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
The Boycott Workfare campaign group’s primary aim appears to be the collapse of the workfare system. Mustard Tree’s primary aim is the support of those who are homeless and marginalised. Our focus is the person who is trapped in the system, and transforming their lives. As an organisation, we understand that every political system will have failings; but our primary focus is to support our beneficiaries. That said, we must consider what may replace the current system and we must resist the use of disadvantaged people as pawns in a political fight; whoever the protagonists may be.
We fully concede that not everyone has a positive story to tell of their time with us, and we fully understand that placements with other providers have not been life enhancing and indeed have sometimes been the very opposite. We recognise that individuals going through this programme with some providers will have felt exploited and undermined and as result will have been unable to complete the placement and will have suffered sanctions as a consequence. This is deplorable and unacceptable and calls into question the overall value of the workfare system and its ability to deliver what its confessed goals are.
The recent accusations made against Mustard Tree are serious and we must review our position going forward, whilst holding to our central focus of how best we support those most in need. Mustard Tree must never exploit or cause poverty and destitution. I believe we have twenty years of evidence of the exact opposite with a track record of transforming lives and an understanding of the complexity of the issues that lead to poverty, disadvantage and homelessness. However, we can never afford to stop listening, learning and reflecting.
Adrian Nottingham, CEO Mustard Tree