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Precautions that are a step too far

by
20 July 2012

Brian Cranwell laments changes that hinder charities helping young people into work

PA

Job-seeking: a queue raising awareness of unemployment in London last year

Job-seeking: a queue raising awareness of unemployment in London last year

PUBLIC allegations have been made recently that commercial organisations in receipt of huge grants for training young people, and placing them into regular employment, have defrauded the system. Much of the information leading to these allegations has come from "whistle-blowers" - employees taken on to audit these payments internally.

The companies concerned have denied these allegations, and it is not my purpose to pre-empt what may well be a judicial process. What concerns me is that the National Audit Office is reducing the risk of fraud by new procedures that require outcomes to be validated before payments are made.

At first hearing, such precautions sound sensible, and first reactions for many will be "Why has this taken so long, and awaited possible fraudulent practice, before being put in place?" But it was because such precautions were brought in that many excellent projects in the old Youth Training Schemes, run by the voluntary sector - including churches - in the 1980s, were closed. These schemes had fewer overheads, and placed young people in jobs without the financial rewards that are given now.

Some of the present schemes are a mix of training for young people on benefits, to enable them to learn the basics of a trade, and workplace disciplines, such as timekeeping, that will help them to be more employ-able. But, if the expenses for running these projects are paid only when a young person completes training, or successfully lands a job, how are the staff to be paid? And how are the other expenses of running their training to be paid, while this is going on?

IN THE late 1970s, I was a member of a voluntary group of Sheffield churchpeople, brought together by the Sheffield Senior Industrial Chaplain, the Revd Malcolm Grundy, to set up a training scheme dedicated to helping young people with special needs and learning difficulties. The group also included youth workers, the chief engineer of a Sheffield steel company, and an industrial designer.

The local Manpower Services Commission (MSC) officers, who were responsible for implementing such schemes, agreed to the setting up of a training workshop, beginning with the basic skills of a traditional Sheffield industry: metal. Starting with 16 young people, making castings in brass and aluminium, the workshop (a registered charity) expanded to train 60 at any one time. They learnt other skills, too, such as finishing and polishing metal, catering, computers, and printing, as well as literacy, and social skills. Trainees included young people with Down syndrome.

One of the conditions laid down by the MSC was that the workshop had to raise ten per cent of its overheads by income from manufactured items. The boost in morale to these young people - most of whom had achieved very little educationally - in finding that someone wanted to pay for something they had made, or done, was phenomenal.

Every trainee who stayed with the scheme, and proved his or her worth, gained a full-time job, and kept it beyond the agreed trial period. Much of the credit for this was due to volunteers from REACH (Retired Executives Action Clearing-House), who persuaded companies to take our trainees.

WORKSHOP 6 was frequently referred to as "the showpiece of the voluntary sector" in South Yorkshire. It was part of the condition for MSC funding that the Workshop could not have a faith or political bias.

It ran for 15 years, and had to close only when the Thatcher government changed the conditions for subsidising these schemes. The first condition introduced was that the workshop would have to raise 20 per cent of its own funding - a practical impossibility.

But the second condition was similar to the proposals that are now being made. It was that the workshop would receive a training grant for each young person only when he or she passed a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) 2.

Such a condition had two huge drawbacks: how were the staff to be paid during the months the trainees were working towards this qualification? And, for someone with, for example, Down syndrome, NVQ2 would be entirely out of reach.

The workshop finally had to close, to the dismay of not only the staff, but others, such as the local social-work teams, and job centres.

NOT ALL such voluntary-sector schemes were without their faults or mistakes, but I do not recall reading of any instance of the abuse of grants.

I believe that there are many people in the voluntary sector who would be just as creative today in finding ways to help these young people. But, if the same mistakes are made by the Government as were made then, they cannot get off the ground.

The schemes should be accountable financially, of course, but a better way of validating such efforts has to be found than the purely financial. They will need to be self-sustaining, not dependent upon government or charitable subsidies; and finding ways to accomplish this will not be easy. New approaches will be needed - possibly entrepreneurial.

Many voluntary and other organisations are, at present, enjoying the fruits of the fact that one of the few retailing booms is in charity shops, and these may provide a guideline.

For several years after the closure of Workshop 6, former members of staff and management-group voluntary trustees would be accosted in the city centre by young men or women who asked: "Weren't you with Workshop 6? It changed my life."

Not many schemes give that sort of satisfaction, but such comments left the recipients with a sense of having made a useful contribution to another's life, together with regret that it had had to stop.

The Revd Brian Cranwell is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield, and a former management consultant.

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