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Escape from the benefits trap – Hard Times, Part 4

2009 June 17
by Paul Vallely

In 1854 Charles Dickens published his novel ‘Hard Times’. It held up a mirror to the social and economic concerns of its age. What would Dickens have discovered if had attempted to do the same today when, after a period of careless prosperity, the nation has once again fallen upon hard times? In a six-part series, Paul Vallely revisits some of Dickens’s themes – work, education, poverty, escapism, emotional health and migration. This week, he meets Mancunians for whom Every Little Helps is more than a sales pitch.


Having satisfied himself, on his father’s death, that his mother had a right of settlement in Coketown, this young economist had asserted that right for her with such a steadfast adherence to the principle of the case, that she had been shut up in the workhouse ever since. It must be admitted that he allowed her half a pound of tea a year, which was weak in him: because all gifts have an inevitable tendency to pauperise the recipient ?

From Hard Times, by Charles Dickens


I am standing on a street in Cheetham Hill waiting for some drug dealers. They do not turn up. Nor does the helpful young man I had met in Tesco who had promised to introduce me to his friends who make their living selling heroin and weed – and who would not want a proper job even if they were offered one. Which they were just a matter of weeks ago.

But 18-year-old Reece Lambert is different. Very different, it turns out, since he is the only one among his social circle who has got a job. Every single one of his friends lives off benefits and/or selling drugs.

“None of them want to work,” he says when we meet away from Cheetham’s streets. “There |are too many different ways to making money – robbing, doing drugs – it’s too easy. All my friends have more money than me; they drive round in nice cars. Selling drugs, they can make £700 a week, though the credit crunch has hit that too.” Heroin is down from £60 to £35 a gram, and the drugs are mixed with increasing amounts of impurities. “They put in just enough to get the right smell,” Reece says, matter-of-factly. “They are happy to do the time [in prison] if they get caught. Five years. It’s the price you pay. Where I’m from it’s the norm. But I wanted something different.”


Cheetham Hill is not the most salubrious part of Manchester. Heavily urbanised during the Industrial Revolution, it has been, for generations, home to successive waves of the city’s immigrant populations. Today the area has 40 ethnic groups. Asians make up 43 per cent of the population, and a further 23 per cent form part of the city’s Jewish population, according to market research done for Tesco, which has just opened a massive and very swish eco-friendly supermarket there, complete with a halal butcher’s department and a separate kosher section.

But the rest of the area is a good deal more down at heel. Twenty years on it has still not shaken off its reputation as one of the two key centres in the shooting war which earned the city the epithet of “Gunchester”, as the Cheetham Hill Gang did battle over control of the illegal drugs trade with the Gooch Close Gang, from Moss Side to the south of the city centre.

“If you want to get a taxi here,” another local told me, “the drivers ask for the money upfront, because they are so used to getting mugged or people running off without paying”.

Unemployment is high, though not quite so high as in the neighbouring ward of Gorton, whose debris-strewn estates were used for the filming of Shameless, television’s paean of ironic praise to life among Britain’s reckless and feckless benefits class. Some families here have not worked for three generations.

Yet first Gorton, and now Cheetham Hill, have been the scene of an extraordinary undertaking to get hundreds off the long-term unemployed register and into jobs. Two years ago Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, launched Local Employer Partnerships, in which the Government, via the local Jobcentre, teamed up with the private sector to offer jobs to those out of work for six months.

One of the first firms to sign up was Tesco which has opened 20 new “Regeneration Partnership” stores in run-down areas, earmarking more than 4,000 new jobs for the long-term unemployed. One opened in Gorton last autumn, and the latest, at Cheetham Hill, a couple of months ago. They are springing people out of the benefits trap.


There were no benefits for ordinary people in 1854 when Charles Dickens wrote his state-of-the-nation novel Hard Times. The only alternative to working was the workhouse, a charitable |institution which provided food and shelter – but of the harshest and most degrading kind, so that only the desperate and the destitute would apply. The idea was to ensure that the work ethic was not undermined, and that the number of inmates was kept as low as possible to minimise the charity demanded from local worthies. Today, instead of putting people in the workhouse, we give them social security handouts.

In Dickens’ day those without a job in Cheetham Hill fell under the soul-destroying regimen of the Manchester Poor Law Union. In Hard Times one of Dickens’ characters put his own mother in a workhouse – with only the gift of half a pound of tea a year to ease his conscience. It was, to the novelist, the ultimate indictment of the system.

Things are unrecognisably better now. Even so, there is something which is as enervating and dehumanising, in a different way, about the dependency on benefits which is endemic in many parts of Cheetham Hill today.

“Being out of work wears you down,” says Reece Lambert. “It is demoralising. At the start I would walk into the city centre every day with a stack of CVs and go to give them out to firms and shops. I would go into Connexions [the Government’s youth employment service] every day looking for jobs on their computers. But they all wanted you to have certain exam grades, or experience, or a driving licence. I would apply for jobs but not even get a reply.”

Before too long, you give up, says Jay Hughes, a 21-year-old who lives up the road on an estate at Harpurhey where most of his mates, too, get by on benefits. “For the first six months I filled in loads of applications for jobs, but you never hear back. I didn’t get a single interview. I have no qualifications, or previous jobs, or references to put down on the forms. But you also know it’s because of your postcode. They see the words Cheetham Hill and that’s it. They don’t even bother saying no. They treat you like you’re not worth anything.

“After a couple of years you get stuck in a cycle,” he continues. “You get up later and later and eventually your body clock gets the wrong way round; sleeping through the day and up all night. Every day is groundhog day – just watching TV, playing the Playstation or on the internet. You become turned in on yourself and you feel increasingly tired, even though you’ve not done anything.”

Forty years on benefits is what lies before many young men like these. There are older men around them who testify to the prospect of long-term unemployment. “You don’t get used to it,” says Phil Parkinson, 35, who has been without a job for eight years. “It feels like you’re constantly getting kicked in the teeth. It saps you.”

The recession means that new men and women are being added to their numbers. Sean Wilson, 51, had worked for 22 years for a firm making car accessories and furniture. When he was made redundant he found a job in Holland working for Mitsubishi. But after three years that ended too. “In the past I’d always managed to find a job, warehousing or something, and I have a forklift licence. But when I got back I was out of work for a year. In the last 12 months there has been nothing, not even through an agency. I became more and more melancholy. People think life’s great on the dole, but it’s not. Your life has no purpose.”

He has found one now. So have the other three.


Tesco is not everyone’s favourite supermarket. The fact that it is the biggest in Britain is one thing. It takes £1 in every £8 spent in shops by British consumers. But its market dominance provokes feelings of deep loathing among many, and not just anti-globalisers, eco-warriors and the farming lobby.

Its critics talk of “Tescopoly” or “Tesco-isation” and lament the fact that big supermarkets are hastening the demise of local shops like butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, chemists and bakers – though, it must be said, many continue to shop there. But some 2,000 independent shops closed in 2005 alone and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops has warned that we will have a “heavily unbalanced trading environment [which] will damage the UK socially, economically and environmentally” by 2015. Still, sometimes the big boy can also be the good guy.

Three months ago, Tesco printed 10,000 leaflets announcing it would be opening a new store at Cheetham Hill and pledging to give half the new jobs created there to local people who had been out of work for six months or more. The local Jobcentre used its database to send them to 10,000 targeted “priority customers”. The supermarket, on the basis of previous schemes, expected around 800 people to ring the hotline number on the leaflet. Twice that number rang.

“Once they pick up the phone, something significant has happened,” says Jo Frith, who runs the Regeneration Partnership scheme for Tesco. “They have made a decision to do something to change their lives.”

“I saw the leaflet,” says Reece, “and when I saw that you had to have been out of work for six months I thought it was perfect for me.”

“My mum got the leaflet and phoned up and got an appointment for herself,” recalls Jay, “then she suggested I do it as well. I had been a bit of a joker at school – too talkative – but I didn’t want to be a doley. So I rang.”

The pair were invited to one of four open days run jointly by Tesco and Jobcentre staff. Some 653 unemployed locals turned up. They were each asked to undertake a basic skills test to identify the level of training they would need and were then given a preliminary interview. “It was scary,” says Bill Moss, an ex-prison officer who had been out of work for four years because of ill-health and who had become burdened with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. “It lasted three hours. For some people just filling in a form is a trauma.” It’s hard to overestimate just how fragile is the sense of self-worth of those who have been out of work even for just a few years.

That is most particularly true for those who have not held down a job before. “You just assume that even the way you talk will be held against you,” says 21-year-old Jay. “They’ll think you sound dead common as well as not looking right. I didn’t have much in the way of clothes, just a couple of pairs of baggies and a couple of T-shirts. I had to borrow some smart gear to come to the interview.”

“What we were looking for was aptitude, rather than experience or existing qualifications,” says Jo Frith. Indeed, those who were academically well-qualified were asked to apply for a job through Tesco’s normal recruitment process. Those selected for the Partnership were invited to 10 days of pre-interview training spread over several weeks. The sessions were designed to build unemployed candidates’ confidence and teach them interview skills.

“A lot of it is very basic,” says Sean Wilson. “It was about turning up on time, being smart, sitting up straight and making eye contact. They taught us not just to give answers that are just yes or no but express ourselves.” Far from everyone passed. “One lad, a nice lad, turned up in jeans and slumped in his chair and didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t get through.”

But those who did were told that, so long as they completed an intensive 30-day pre-employment course spread over six weeks, they would be guaranteed a job. The training covered customer care, health and safety, first aid and food hygiene. “But it is as much about training them to get out of bed every morning, put on a uniform and turn up on time at 9am,” says Jo Frith, who has personally supervised six Partnership schemes for Tesco and found jobs for more than 700 people from the long-term unemployment register.

Some complained it was like being back at school, but it put some structure into the day for those whose biggest decision each morning had previously been only whether or not to switch over from Jeremy Kyle.

At the end of the course teams of trainees are asked to do a presentation of their “journey to Tesco”. Some do skits of The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. “Some need more help than others,” says Jo Frith. “It’s a big adjustment. But it’s about dispelling the myth that if you’re on benefit you’re worthless or where you are because that’s where you want to be.”

She recalls a poem that was written on an earlier Partnership training course by a man in his early 60s whose wife had just died. He had spent 19 years as her carer and was bewildered at how he was going to get himself back into the mindset of the world of work. Her eyes moisten as she recounts how he stood up before his fellow trainees and a group of Tesco managers to read it, his voice breaking with emotion. “There were 100 people in that room, all silent, all willing him to speak. And as he finished a great cheer went up and I noticed that the store manager was in tears. Some of the stories that come out of this process are heart-rending.”

In the Cheetham Hill training course, one of the teams did a parody of The Wizard of Oz which they called The Wicked Witch of the Dole. “It took some guts,” says the Cheetham store manager, Simon Renwick, who had not been involved in a Partnership project before. “I’d had reservations. But in the end I’ve been completely won over.”


David Potts is a Tesco man through and through. As well he might be, given that last year he earned £1,490,000 from the firm.

When he gets off the London train at Manchester, with a little time to spare before he transfers to the Eastlands stadium to see his beloved Manchester City play, he is still wearing his company shirt and a big round badge which proclaims that he joined the supermarket in 1973.

That was when he was 16. He left school on a Friday and started at Tesco on the Monday. He has been there ever since. The boy who started work on the shop floor in nearby Ashton, having failed all his O-levels, is now a director of the company, in charge of its entire retail and|logistics operation.

“I recently changed the badges to a round shape,” he explains. “It seems friendlier.” It is not all he has changed. David Potts’ story is clearly an inspiration to the Partnership Scheme.

“Education is a fantastic thing, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” he told the local paper a few years back, in an interview to mark the publication of the annual GCSE results. “I didn’t expect to get Fs, and my friends all did well,” he revealed. But though he was disappointed, he was not downhearted. Within a year he had he secured a place on the company’s store management programme and two years later – after successfully resitting exams in maths, English and commerce – he was appointed assistant manager one of its east Manchester stores.

“With over 1,000 stores and 237,000 employees, we’re the country’s largest private-sector employer. It falls to us to put something back,” he says now. Most of the company’s recruitment is done through open competition; it has 12,000 university graduates on its UK staff. But in redeveloping brownfield sites in disadvantaged communities with little economic opportunity and many social problems, it is now giving equal priority to the unemployed.

There is a business logic to it, as Jo Frith explains to often-sceptical groups of Tesco managers when they first come into contact with the Partnership scheme. “We’re building stores in challenging areas,” she tells them. “We have to build local loyalty to the brand.”

Hiring local people helps to do that. When customers enter a new store they like to see familiar faces working there. It makes them feel comfortable, and subconsciously generates a sense that the store will be a place that addresses their needs. Even so, adds Frith, it can take a lot of effort to persuade hard-nosed business managers of that. Often she begins by asking managers to do an exercise explaining how |they would manage on the £64.30 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance.

“It’s a sobering exercise,” says Frith, and it goes some way to dispelling the prejudice that people on benefits are idle or unemployable. “We’re a business first and foremost, but we do have a sense of social responsibility. We want to put something back. We’re not social workers, but we can give people a chance, an opportunity, we can give them some hope.”

“These are great people who, through no fault of their own, need a little help,” says David Potts. He does not say so, but it is clear he thinks he is speaking of people like him. The training room at the Cheetham Hill store is packed with those who match his description.

One is Helen Paton. A former pub landlady and careworker, the 51-year-old has been out of work for 11 years. But in that time she brought up two children and looked after her elderly mother. “My days have been full,” she says, “but I didn’t want my boys, who are 13 and six, to grow up thinking that going out to work wasn’t what people did and that signing on was normal.”

Sitting by Helen in the training room is 17-year-old Katie Henry, who has never worked since leaving school a year ago. “I didn’t get any GCSEs because I just wagged it all the time at school,” she admits. At the age of 15 she had left home and was living with her boyfriend. “He was a chef in Selfridges’ kitchen but he’s in jail now, so I’ve been back living with my mum for the past six months,” she says baldly.

“It was my sister who got the mail-drop leaflet, but she decided not to ring. She’s wild. But I rang, and went to Tesco’s at Gorton. They just seemed like ordinary people, so it didn’t seem out of reach. When the interviewer said, ‘I’d like to offer you a job,’ I was buzzing. My sister is gutted now that she didn’t ring, but my mum is pleased and she’s looking for a job now. I’m on the checkout and I love it.”

The Tesco philosophy is that anyone with the right “people skills” can be trained to the necessary standard to work in their stores. Even so, the background of many of those they hire is challenging.

“They have to be told not to burp or fart or say ‘fuck’ when they’re on the checkout,” one Tesco trainer tells me. “Many have no comprehension that different behaviour is appropriate in different circumstances.”

“Some need training in just turning up every day,” says Jo Frith. “You have to explain to them that they can’t go on a bender on payday and be off for two days while they sober up. They need training to handle having a bank account and in how to manage their personal finances.”

But the firm does not fight shy of taking on people with particular problems. Phil Parkinson, who is now the team leader in the home and health department, had been unable to find a job for eight years because he suffers from epileptic fits.

“I’d go for interviews and everything would go swimmingly and then at the end they would say, ‘Just a few health questions,’ and when I told them you could see a change in their eyes and you knew that was that. But Tesco have taken me on despite it.” Three deaf people have been taken on to work in the in-store bakery, which has been adapted so that alarms work on flashing lights rather than buzzers to signal when |the bread is baked.

The firm has been rewarded for its strategy. Tesco has found that the motivation and commitment of the candidates coming through the Partnership more than matches that of staff recruited in the normal manner. Absenteeism at the Cheetham store is very low – 1.9 per cent compared with 5.2 per cent for the average new store.

“Because they are local they can walk to work,” says Jo Frith. “It means they don’t incur travelling costs, but it also seems to make the staff more loyal. Because their background has made them so cash-conscious, they are also extremely creative when it comes to seeking out cost-savings on things like preventing waste. They are committed and enthusiastic and loyal. They become the backbone of the store.” Bill Moss says: “Tesco took a chance on us. Now it’s up to us to pay them back.”

The scheme is no panacea. Having a job throws up all kinds of problems which have not previously confronted the long-term unemployed. The structure of the welfare system is problematic; a job may bring a wage in excess of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support, but it can also mean the new workers lose housing benefit, council tax benefit, child tax credits, free school meals and free prescriptions. In addition, they have extra costs for childcare and for transport to that childcare.

“People rarely ask at the start of the process about the pay,” says Jo Frith, “because they may be getting a salary of £500 compared to benefits of £300 a month. But someone who hasn’t worked for years may find a full working week too much. Then, when they take everything else into consideration, they find that a lone parent needs a minimum of 16 hours a week to make work viable; someone on Jobseeker’s Allowance will need a minimum of 30 hours. So people will come to us and say ‘I need an extra three hours’ and we’ll do our best to find it for them.”

It would be easy to be cynical about the whole scheme. After all, there are 609 people on the dole in Cheetham Hill, and those who volunteered for the Tesco Partnership were a self-selecting minority. What distinguishes Reece Lambert from many of his mates, for example, is that he comes from a household in which the two adults both work, his father in a warehouse and his grandmother as a cleaner. The scheme has not reached those of his peer group, who come from homes where unemployment has become ingrained inter-generationally.

Nor did it reach out to Reece’s mate Martin, who applied with him. “Trouble is, he had a firearms conviction so he didn’t get it,” Reece remarks. “He’s not a bad guy; it was just a tin of gas he had. He got his hopes up and then he was proper gutted. He’s still looking but he’s finding it hard with that on his record.”

Yet it is no mean feat for one firm to have taken 125 people off the long-term jobless register. That is almost a fifth of the local total. Nor have they chosen those who would most readily have found employment conventionally: 25 per cent are single parents; 17 per cent were on incapacity benefit; 34 per cent were from ethnic minorities.

And the scheme is good for the wider community; the store will bring £3.4m a year in staff salaries into the depressed inner city. In many urban areas, Tesco is the major local employer. The staff salaries of these low-paid workers are largely spent in the area and play a role in preventing the district sinking into total decline.

What’s beyond dispute are the changes the scheme has made to the lives of individuals. There is something uplifting in watching a young man like Reece interact with the older men in the supermarket’s training room, much as apprentices did in the workplace in a previous era. “Without work, people like Reece only meet people of their own age,” says Jo Frith. “They don’t get any guidance on how to be a man; they stay adolescents all of their lives.”

For many of the new employees, the jobs they have been given are only a first step. Many need continuing support with numeracy and literacy. “Some of them get the learning bug,” says Jo Frith, “and ask to do more and more courses.” Phil Parkinson has already enquired about Tesco’s management training scheme. “And it’s not a failure if trainees decide to leave,” Frith adds, “so long as they get another job and don’t slip back on to the dole.”

Reece Lambert knows this is just the beginning. “Anyone with the right attitude could do my job,” he says. “It’s called ‘health and beauty replenishment’, but it’s just stacking shelves really. But I get on with all my managers here. After I’ve been here a while I’ll inquire about training to be a team leader – I’ll keep this job as long as I can and save.

“My ambition in life is to run my own business football coaching. I was signed up by Man United when I was 13 and still at school, but my knees let me down as a player. So my plan is to do my coaching exams and then do a business qualification at night school so I can set up my own company.”

Even though he is a lifelong supporter of Manchester’s other team, David Potts is tickled when he hears this. Ambition is something he recognises and respects. “We’ll have really cracked this Partnership idea,” he says, “when one of our stores is managed by someone who came through the scheme.” It’s not an unrealistic target. Tesco is planning, despite the recession, to recruit another 10,000 staff this year.

In the meantime, David Potts says: “Tell Reece I’ll give him £50 if he can recruit another of his mates to work for us.”

That will be no small task, especially for those of his peers who earn in a week, selling drugs, what Reece takes home in a month. But if he can do it he will have cleared what Jo Frith regards as the biggest hurdle in the fight to get people off benefits and into work. “You have to get them to turn up first,” concludes Frith. “That’s the hardest bit. After that, anything’s possible.”


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