Poundland Girl: human rights crusader or ungrateful graduate?

Will Hodges reports on the future of the government's controversial back-to-work schemes

Poundland Girl Cait Reilly is the latest mere mortal to enter the public domain for her 15 minutes of fame. You'll know her as the 24-year-old University of Birmingham graduate who challenged the government's back-to-work scheme, claiming that it violated UK slave labour laws.

Cait said she was forced to leave valuable work experience at a museum - a sector related to the geology graduate's long-term career ambitions - in November 2011 in order to continue to qualify for Jobseeker's Allowance. She was then ordered to complete a two-week unpaid work placement at discount high street store Poundland under a scheme known as the "sector-based work academy".

The scheme was set up in 2011 and is spearheaded by former Conservative Party leader and current work and pensions minister, Ian Duncan Smith. It's designed to provide unemployed young people with the practical skills and work experience needed for finding permanent employment. Under previous regulations, claimants who refused to participate in the scheme risked losing their unemployment benefits.

In February, the Court of Appeal struck down Cait's suggestion that being made to work unpaid in order to receive benefits was a form of forced labour under the Human Rights Act. But she succeeded in her claim that the unpaid work schemes are legally flawed. The Court found that the regulations behind the schemes did not comply with the Act of Parliament that gave the Department for Work and Pensions the power to introduce the programme. The back-to-work scheme is now undergoing revisions so that it will be able to continue offering work experience and financial support to jobseekers in the UK.

Causing a stir

The Court of Appeal decision has caused controversy. While many activists and people made to do unpaid work have supported the outcome, it has been criticised by the government and those who argue that Cait is an ungrateful graduate. Employment minister Mark Hoban said it was ridiculous to describe the scheme as forced labour: "There needed to be flexibility, so we could give people the right support to meet their needs and get them into a job," he explained.

More than 20 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds are estimated to be neither employed nor in full-time education, compared to a rate of less than 8 per cent unemployment for the UK as a whole. These figures compare favourably with other European states such as Spain and Italy, where youth unemployment is closer to 40 per cent. But with the number of unemployed young people recently topping one million in the UK, the government is under immense pressure to find them routes into work.

Ministers are also looking at ways to cut public spending on benefits as a means of reducing the UK's public debt levels. Spending on Jobseeker's Allowance is reported to cost the government in excess of £11 billion a year, making it one of the ten most costly forms of welfare.

Despite being considered unfair by some, the government's back-to-work schemes have their merits. Government figures suggest that back-to-work schemes have proved moderately successful in helping jobseekers into permanent employment. Up to 30 per cent of individuals participating in government-sponsored placements were reported to have found employment after nine months. Indeed, Cait herself was revealed to be working part-time in a supermarket, in a similar role to that undertaken during her placement at Poundland.

Still, some feel there are better ways to find work for young people than forcing them to take placements they don't want, and which often have little relevance to their chosen career field.

Deborah James is curator at the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath, an independent organisation that relies heavily on volunteers to help with the day-to-day running of the museum. "We're especially pleased to find young people and graduates who can offer various skills and who are often interested in further training which might help them on a career path," she says. "I was surprised to hear about the case [of Cait Reilly]. Young enthusiastic people who've made the effort to gain professional qualifications and experience should be encouraged to get on a career ladder for which they are suited. Personally, I don't see the value of graduates being forced to work for the sake of working."

The final verdict

While Cait's moment in the spotlight is unlikely to last much longer than her ill-fated Poundland stint, the debate surrounding the effectiveness of the government's back-to-work schemes will linger for some time to come. The coalition, currently struggling to maintain its popularity in the face of a vicious programme of spending cuts, needs to do everything in its power to help unemployed young people find work.